HALIFAX — New details are emerging about the chaos that ensued as police in rural Nova Scotia tried to capture a killer disguised as an RCMP officer — and first responders tried to help a rapidly growing list of victims.
The search for the suspect stretched from late Saturday night to Sunday morning, when the death toll rose to 22 as the gunman evaded police by driving in a car identical to an RCMP cruiser.
Audio recordings of first responders communicating on two-way radios provide a glimpse of their frantic attempts to help the first victims found Saturday at 10:40 p.m. amid burning homes in the village of Portapique, N.S.
On one of the recordings, stored on the Broadcastify website, first responders dispatched to the scene along Highway 2 tell the dispatcher they can see something burning in the distance.
“I’m seeing huge flames and smoke from where we are,” says one, minutes before the dispatcher says police have discovered a gunshot victim on Portapique Beach Road.
Within the next 20 minutes, the extent of the carnage comes into sharp focus as police call for more ambulances — twice.
There’s a person down there with a gun
“There possibly could be other victims down by the scene but police are slowly bringing people out,” the paramedic says in a steady, even tone that speaks of his training.
Then the pace of his speech quickens.
“There’s a person down there with a gun,” he says.
“They’re still looking for him. The patient we have got shot by him. He was just down there observing the fire, checking out the fire. So there could be other patients around the fire that could be gone already, but we’re not sure.”
He indicates there is confusion in the darkness as police search for the killer.
“It’s very vague what’s going on down there, but there is for sure multiple patients down there,” he says.
By 11:20 p.m., the first responders are still unsure of what is going on.
“Do we know if they’ve caught the assailant?” one asks over the radio.
The dispatcher responds: “No not for sure … They’re bringing victims out to that intersection from the actual scene. But no, they don’t know if they’ve caught him. I don’t know.”
It’s unclear exactly how many people were killed along Portapique Beach Road, which includes many seasonal and permanent homes along the picturesque north shore of Cobequid Bay.
Police confirmed Wednesday that the suspect managed to escape from a perimeter they had set up around the rural area, but they didn’t realize he was gone until some time between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Sunday when a witness revealed details about the fake police car.
At 8:02 a.m., police issued an alert on Twitter saying they were looking for an active shooter in the Portapique area.
Over a 12-hour period, 51-year-old Gabriel Wortman of Halifax killed 22 people — some he knew, others he met randomly as he fled.
His victims include an RCMP officer, two nurses, two correctional officers, a family of three, a teacher and some of his neighbours in Portapique.
Heavily armed RCMP officers fatally shot him at a gas station in Enfield, N.S., about 90 kilometres south of Portapique at around 11:30 a.m. on Sunday.
The motive for the slayings remains unclear.
Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s police watchdog is investigating why two RCMP officers started shooting at a fire hall on Sunday morning even though the suspect is not believed to have been in the vicinity.
Pat Curran, interim director of the Serious Incident Response Team, said the officers fired their weapons around 10:30 a.m. at the Onslow-Belmont Fire Hall, near Truro.
The fire hall is about a half-hour drive from Portapique.
The Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade posted a message on Facebook saying the building was being used as refuge for evacuees from around Portapique Beach Road when it was pelted by bullets on Sunday morning.
The Facebook post, which has since been deleted, says the gunfire caused considerable damage to the fire hall but no one was injured. The brigade, which declined a request for comment, confirmed on Facebook that the post was meant to clarify Sunday’s events and not fuel “conspiracy theories” about the shooter.
Police say the investigation into the killings is complex because there are 16 crime scenes spread over a wide stretch of northern Nova Scotia. A total of five structures were set on fire, though the exact sequence of events remains unclear.
Police said the gunman acted alone during his violent rampage, but investigators said they are trying to determine whether anyone assisted him before the shooting began.
— With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Adina Bresge