NANAIMO, B.C. — Workers at a waterfront sawmill in this normally quiet city on Vancouver Island would have just been settling into their shifts Wednesday morning when the first sounds of gunfire erupted from the mill’s parking lot.
Within minutes, four employees were shot — two of them fatally — and a former colleague was under arrest, leaving their co-workers and their community struggling to understand what could have prompted such a shocking display of workplace violence.
The RCMP said the shooting happened shortly before 7 a.m. at a Western Forest Products sawmill in Nanaimo, a central-island city of about 84,000 people where many tourists routinely arrive by ferry from Vancouver.
Police arrived within minutes of the first 911 call, RCMP said, and arrested a 47-year-old man who lives in the city and who the company identified as a former employee.
Four men were taken to hospital, one by air to Victoria and the rest to Nanaimo, where two were pronounced dead. The patient in Victoria was in critical condition, while the surviving victim in Nanaimo was listed as stable.
Supt. Mark Fisher said police believed the attack began in the parking lot and then moved into the mill’s offices.
A member of the RCMP emergency response team arrested the suspect shortly after arriving, said Fisher, and a shotgun was seized at the scene.
Fisher didn’t provide any further details about the suspect and he declined to speculate about what may have motivated the attack.
He said police believed the shooter acted alone.
“We have no indication that there are any other suspects involved in this incident,” said Fisher.
Don Demens, president of Western Forest Products, which is based in Vancouver, confirmed the suspect was a former worker, but declined to reveal when the man left the company or under what circumstances.
Demens said the company was providing grief counsellors for its employees and all of the company’s operations on Vancouver Island were closed for at least Wednesday out of respect for the victims.
“Clearly, we’ve had a terrible tragedy at our sawmill here in Nanaimo today,” Demens told a news conference alongside the RCMP in Nanaimo.
“I’d like to express our deepest concern for the families, friends and co-workers. For those lives that were lost and those that were wounded, our hearts and minds are with them today.”
Joe Kaila, 57, who works on one of the saws at the mill, heard a popping sound when he was in one of the company’s two parking lots Wednesday morning. He said he thought perhaps a propane or something else may have exploded.
Kaila said he ran into a foreman on the way into the mill, who told him to gather all the employees in the lunchroom because there had been a shooting in the office.
“So we gathered everybody up to make sure nobody was running around in the mill, so that way they were safe and in one place.”
He said the police later came in and interviewed the workers.
Kaila said he was a friend of one of the victims and knows of the alleged gunman.
“Nobody thought somebody was going to bring a gun here and start shooting.”
The United Steelworkers union, which represents workers at the mill, said it dispatched its own emergency team to the site to provide counselling and other services for workers.
At the mill, family members and workers, some in tears, gathered outside the gates to await news about their loved ones and lay flowers.
Charlie Gallagher, a shift supervisor at another Western Forest Products mill in nearby Ladysmith, said he wasn’t sure whether he personally knew any of the victims, but he brought a bouquet of flowers to the mill’s gates all the same.
“Out of pure emotion, more than anything,” said Gallagher when asked why he visited the mill.
“It’s our colleagues and people we’ve worked in the industry with for a number of years. We may not have known them, but they work for our company and we owe them that.”
Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan, who attended the RCMP news conference, said he was “shocked” when he heard of the shooting.
“These incidents do happen, but you always hope that they won’t happen in your own community,” said Ruttan.
“My heart goes out to the families involved. Certainly, we’re doing all we can as a community to work with the police to make sure this is investigated fully.”
B.C. Premier Christy Clark told the legislature that such violence is “almost unknown” in her province.
“Most of us here today cannot imagine what the victims and their families must be going through,” said Clark.
“They should know they are not alone. The people of British Columbia are standing with them.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his condolences on Twitter, as did NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
“Tragic news out of Nanaimo,” said a post on Harper’s Twitter account. “Thoughts are with the friends and families of the victims.”
Fisher, the RCMP superintendent, said such violence is rare in Nanaimo.
“The families and the mill employees will now have to cope with the tragedy that unfolded here today, as will the community of Nanaimo,” said Fisher.
“It’s going to be a challenge.”
The union and Western Forest Products are in the midst of a long-standing grievance over what the union describes as “severance pay avoidance” at the company’s mills in Nanaimo, where the shooting occurred, and Duke Point, on the southern edge of the city. The union claims workers are entitled to severance pay related to shutdowns at both facilities dating back as far as 2008.
The dispute is now in arbitration, but the process has stretched on for several years and has been repeatedly delayed.
Contract negotiations are also taking place this year. The company and the union met to discuss contract negotiations last weekend, according to a bulletin posted to the union’s website, with the next meeting scheduled in two weeks.
There has been no suggestion that the shooting is in any way related to the grievance or the contract negotiations.