Ottawa

After Ottawa shooting, 6 people still bound by effort to save Cpl. Nathan Cirillo

The six people who rushed to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo's side as he lay dying at the National War Memorial remain connected by the shocking events of that day one year later.

'We understand what it was to be there and we can talk about it,' says man who attended dying soldier

The six people who rushed to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo's side to try to keep him alive as he lay dying in the shadow of the National War Memorial remain connected by the shock of that day one year later. 3:44

The six people who rushed to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo's side to try to keep him alive as he lay dying in the shadow of the National War Memorial remain connected by the shock of that day one year later.

Moments after Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was shot multiple times in the back, people nearby rushed to his side to try to keep him alive until paramedics arrived. One year later, they still lean on each other for support. (Daniel Thibeault/CBC)

"No one else — not your husband, not your best friend — really can understand what you went through, other than those five people," said former nurse Margaret Lerhe, who was one of the first to arrive, in an interview this week.

"I truly believe that we'll be friends. I just can't imagine it, drifting apart. We'll always have Oct. 22 to commemorate."

At 9:50 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2014, gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau approached Cirillo from behind and shot him three times.

The six people who stopped to help have met several times since then and still keep in touch.

We found solace in each other's words. We understand what it was to be there and we can talk about it, and we can talk about the experiences coming out of it.–Martin Magnan

"We found solace in each other's words," said Martin Magnan, also one of the first to reach Cirillo, in an interview at the memorial in the days leading up to Oct. 22.

"We understand what it was to be there and we can talk about it, and we can talk about the experiences coming out of it. We can talk about where our lives are going and how it's impacted us, and we get it."

'Everyone showed up within seconds'

Cpl. Kyle Button, who was the third man on guard at the memorial that day, was the first to drop to the ground next to Cirillo to begin first aid after the shots were fired.

Magnan, a communications adviser for the Department of National Defence at the time, was heading to a meeting when he heard the shots and immediately ran toward them, helping Button treat Cirillo when he got there.

Martin Magnan says the National War Memorial, where he and others tried to save Cirillo, will always be a personal place for him now. (CBC News)

"After that ... everyone showed up within seconds of each other. A rhythm established itself, CPR took place and we were talking amongst ourselves. It just kind of happened," Magnan said.

The third person to arrive was Lerhe, who was also on her way to a meeting. She briefly thought the shooting was a training exercise before realizing there was no one observing them.

Col. Conrad Mialkowski, who was driving by when he heard the shots and drove his vehicle up onto the sidewalk, was the fourth to arrive at Cirillo's side. The fifth was Cpl. Anthony Wiseman, driver of the chief of the defence staff, and the last to arrive was lawyer Barbara Winters, a former naval reservist.

Winters spoke words of comfort to Cirillo, unsure if they got through, as Cirillo wasn't conscious, but even as the paramedics arrived she kept speaking to him, telling him how loved he was.

When Ottawa paramedics arrived Cirillo was rushed to hospital, but he died of his wounds.

Lonely moments

Magnan describes the minutes after paramedics wheeled Cirillo away as some of the loneliest of his life. He sat on the mount of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and looked up at the bronze sculptures of the memorial arch.

"When I'm looking up, and it's just the monument and you see these soldiers … it was the coldest moment of my life.… Just a very still, lonely cold, because then you start realizing what took place," Magnan said.

"This is a personal spot for me now. It's always going to be part of me, here. My kids understand it's a part of me."

Eventually the six responders were taken from the memorial to Ottawa police headquarters on Elgin Street to be interviewed.

'I don't know if there can ever be closure'

Button, now a master corporal based at CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick, has been back in Ottawa since Sept. 22, serving as a posting corporal at the memorial. He accompanies the two ceremonial guards to their posts near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

He'll also attend a memorial ceremony today marking one year since the attack that killed his colleague.

Master Cpl. Kyle Button, who was working as a ceremonial guard the day Cirillo was shot, says he hopes to one day stand guard at the National War Memorial again. (CBC News)

He calls his fellow first responders his friends, and while he'll be glad to see Cirillo's family again, he said the ceremony won't change what happened last year.

"I don't know if there can ever be closure," Button said in an interview at the memorial Wednesday.

"It's always going to be something in my life. This place is always going to mean something on this day, and I'm sure ... for the rest of my life, the 22nd of October will definitely be a day I'll never forget.

"When you're on deployment you're expecting something like that. When you're here, the sounds of gunshots, the experience of trauma, it's a lot more surprising."

Button hopes to one day stand at the memorial for sentry duty again.

'I was an emotional wreck'

Lerhe kept herself busy in the days following the shooting and focused on others, but finally broke down while finishing up a course in Victoria, alone.

Margaret Lerhe, a former nurse, now works for Doctors Without Borders in a small town in Central African Republic. Cirillo's 'senseless death' was the catalyst for Lerhe to leave her job in Ottawa, she says. (Margaret Lerhe)

"I just completely lost it and I was an emotional wreck, so when I came back to Ottawa I had to see somebody. I had to see a professional," she said. "You can't run from pain, you have to deal with it. And that's what I had been trying to do, I think, by keeping busy and looking after the course and my friend."

The best help came from reaching out to the five who sat next to her that day, feverishly trying to keep Cirillo alive.

"That, probably, was our godsend, because we still email frequently. I send them a big email every three weeks about what's going on and I hear back from them. I think we'll remain friends forever now. We're all very different, but we're all very connected now," Lerhe said.

Before the shooting, Lerhe had been tempted to join Doctors Without Borders but never took the plunge.

Cirillo's "senseless death" became the catalyst for changing her life, she said.

"Nathan's death made me realize, life is too short.… I just felt that I had something to give, in a greater capacity than in my former work," she said. "I wanted to do something for humanity. I wanted to contribute in a meaningful way."

Lerhe is now three months into a nine-month contract with Doctors Without Borders in Zemio, a small town in Central African Republic near the border with Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. 

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