Driver of stolen fire truck swerved toward people during downtown chase: Winnipeg police

A stolen fire truck swerved toward people as it drove through a downtown Winnipeg park with more than a dozen police vehicles chasing it on Friday afternoon, police say.

The truck weaved through Winnipeg's East Kildonan neighbourhood to Portage Place Shopping Centre and across the grass at Central Park before it stopped on Assiniboine Avenue underneath the Midtown Bridge.

"The threat was very real here," Const. Rob Carver said. However, police do not believe it was an act of terrorism, he said. 

The vehicle was first reported stolen by an off-duty firefighter who noticed the driver was wearing street clothes, Carver said. 

The truck had been left running as the crew was responding to a medical call, chief John Lane of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said.

The next report about the stolen truck was that it hit a vehicle on Henderson Highway at Donalda Avenue and knocked down a hydro pole.

The truck then drove into the downtown.

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Carver said officers pursuing the vehicle saw it drive wildly through the park, though no bystanders were hit. Carver clarified that there was no indication the driver was attempting to injure anyone deliberately.  

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Although the vehicle wasn't travelling fast — between 20 and 50 km/h — police were told to continue the chase, even though there was a risk to the public.

"At one point, an update from one of our officers was that it had run into a tree and through stop signs and was swerving, actively trying to hit everything he could on the way."

Carver said police deployed two separate spike belts to stop the fire truck.

The severely damaged vehicle stopped when it broke down under the Midtown Bridge, with the right front wheel almost completely off.

The driver still didn't give up.

"He had to be Tasered to be subdued," Carver said.

The man who was behind the wheel is now in custody. No charges have been laid yet, Carver said.

It's incredible nobody was hurt in the chase, he said.

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"I just can't underestimate the threat this would've been. I'm absolutely shocked at not only the minimal property damage, other than obviously to the vehicle itself, but that no one was seriously injured in this," Carver said.

Michael Boyce saw the stolen truck twice during his walk back to work from lunch in the Exchange District.

Boyce said he first saw the stolen vehicle in the Exchange, at the intersection of Main Street and Bannatyne Avenue and then 10 minutes later at the intersection of Ellice Avenue and Edmonton Street, south of Central Park.

He said the driver took a wide turn around a group of pedestrians that included downtown safety patrols — and did not appear to be targeting pedestrians.

"He easily could have hit me," said Boyce, a vice-president at Booth University College.

"He was definitely driving erratically, but not in a way that I felt I was in any danger. I didn't know what was going on. It just felt like emergency vehicles were going somewhere. You know, people weren't jumping out of the way or anything."

Minutes later, Nicole Ryan was driving down Vaughan when she saw a fire truck with a lot of damage to its front end going the wrong way.

"It had its lights on coming the wrong direction down the one way, so obviously I stopped and pulled over, put my hazards on and just waited," she said.

"I got this feeling that something was not right." 

There were no firefighters in the back seat, which was strange, she said.

Police said at least 14 vehicles pursued the stolen truck, including the tactical support unit and the Air1 police helicopter.

Carver says it's too soon to say whether the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Other stolen emergency vehicles

This isn't the first time an emergency vehicle has been stolen in or near the city.

In 2017, a Winnipeg fire truck was stolen when a crew had left their vehicle unattended while helping a patient downtown.

Police were called and recovered the unit within minutes at Portage Avenue and Sherbrook Street. In that case, there was no damage to the vehicle.

And in July of this year, two men stole a Winnipeg police cruiser, which still had a key in the ignition, after they were involved in a carjacking.

The two men were arrested separately after a wild, high speed pursuit that spanned more than 100 kilometres and involved numerous police vehicles.

Lane says it's normal to leave diesel engine vehicles running in cold weather. Carver says he knows situations like these make first responders look irresponsible, but there's more at play.

"When we're running out of a vehicle to make sure we can save someone's life, that's our priority. I get the look that this presents, but unless you've been first on scene to a tragic incident where someone's life is hanging in the balance, I don't know if you can properly weigh in," he said.

Lane said the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is looking into the circumstances of how the truck was stolen and may amend its protocols.