HALIFAX — Nova Scotia paramedic Melanie Lowe struggled to maintain her composure Monday as she described the night two years ago when four children climbed into her ambulance and described how their parents had just been shot to death.
"They were very frank about what they saw," Lowe told a public inquiry investigating a mass shooting in April 2020 that started in Portapique, N.S., and would claim 22 lives over two days in northern and central Nova Scotia.
"The didn't really understand what had happened .... The kids explained in detail, minute to minute, what had happened … and the things they had seen, and how their house was on fire. There were shots. People were laying on the ground outside of their home."
Lowe was among three paramedics and an ambulance dispatcher who spoke to the inquiry about their work on April 18-19, 2020. All four said they were told very little about what was going on as the RCMP searched for the killer. And they complained about how little support they received afterwards from their employer, Emergency Health Services.
"I kept it together for that day," Lowe recalled as she described listening to the children while cleaning blood off of some of them as they drove to the hospital in nearby Truro, N.S.
"I didn't realize how much it was going to affect me. It was definitely nothing that any child should see, or hear or experience. I have a harder time with it now than I did then."
The inquiry has heard that shortly after 10 p.m. on April 18, 2020, the killer approached a neighbour's home in Portapique. He fatally shot Greg Blair on the front deck and then broke into the house to shoot Jamie Blair, as her two young boys — ages 11 and nine — looked on from behind a bed.
About 10 minutes later, the boys fled when they realized the killer had set fire to the house before leaving. They sprinted to the home of Lisa McCully, who had been fatally shot minutes earlier as she walked to the edge of her property.
The Blair boys did not see her as they made their way to McCully's house, where her two children — a 12-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy — were hiding.
Blair's 11-year-old son called 911 at 10:16 p.m., telling the operator about his parents' deaths. The children also confirmed the killer was driving a replica police car with emergency lights and decals.
The four remained in the basement of the McCully home until midnight, when the Mounties decided it was safe for them to leave.
The inquiry has heard 13 people were shot to death in Portapique that night. The killer, who had set fire to several homes, used a back road to evade a police blockade around 10:45 p.m. He killed another nine people the next day during a 13-hour rampage that ended when he was shot by two Mounties at a gas station north of Halifax.
On the night the killing started, Lowe was working with advanced-care paramedic Jeff Aucoin, who spoke of the impact the children's grim conversation had on him.
"There was a lot of stuff that was said there that was hard to hear from young kids," Aucoin said. "It's stuff that just doesn't go away. It's something that's always there and it's hard to get rid of."
Lowe and Aucoin said they were given little information about what was happening in Portapique when they arrived and were tasked with evacuating a local resident.
"Where we were sitting, we could see the fires," Aucoin said. "That's when we realized we were obviously in a spot we were not supposed to be .... We never got any details about what might have been going on."
Bruce Cox, an advanced emergency medical dispatcher, told the inquiry how he found it difficult to respond to emergency calls on the second day of the tragedy because his supervisors were not sharing information with him.
At one point on April 19, 2020, he was on a 911 call from a person who had discovered a body along the highway in Wentworth, N.S. Thirty minutes later, he was involved in another call about the discovery of two more shooting victims 30 kilometres away in Debert, N.S.
"We were getting no information from anybody," Cox said. "Our imaginations were going wild."
Jesse Brine, a primary-care paramedic who worked with Lowe on the second day, confirmed paramedics were left in the dark about the danger they were facing.
"When multiple agencies are involved, no one really knows who is in charge," he said.
The inquiry has heard there was considerable confusion among RCMP commanders as the tragedy unfolded, especially on the first night.
Cox and others complained about a lack of training when it comes to active shooter cases.
"We're not more prepared than we were two years ago," he said.
As well, they all said they were offered very little support afterwards, aside from a couple of debriefings and some help from volunteers offering peer support.
"There was more that should have been done," Lowe said, adding that she was not offered any time off. Aucoin said much the same thing: "We were left on our own."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 13, 2022.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Lisa McCully had two boys; McCully had a boy and a girl. An earlier story also wrongly attributed a quote from Jesse Brine to Bruce Cox.