'A very traumatic situation': Onslow firefighters trying to cope after shots fired at hall during N.S. mass shooting
LOWER ONSLOW, N.S. -- You can still see the bullet holes at the fire hall in Lower Onslow in Nova Scotia's Colchester County. There are several in one of the fire hall's doors. There's a spray of marks and a hole in the side of the building. There's also a hole in a digital sign in the hall's parking lot.
It's all evidence of what happened there during the chaos of Nova Scotia's mass shooting the weekend of April 18.
Nova Scotia's Serious Incident Response Team is still investigating, but says that it was around 10:30 a.m. on April 19, when two RCMP officers opened fire outside the hall.
At the time, the fire hall was being used as a registration centre by Nova Scotia's EMO for residents of nearby Portapique, N.S., who had fled their homes after the rampage had begun in their community the night before.
By the next morning, police forces throughout the province were on the hunt for the mass shooter, who they knew was driving a replica police cruiser, and wearing an RCMP uniform.
Sources have told CTV News the two RCMP officers who opened fire outside the hall Sunday morning thought they were shooting at the suspect, but stopped when they learned it was a fellow RCMP officer.
An RCMP officer had been stationed outside the fire hall that day.
Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade spokesperson Clair Peers wasn't there that morning. But he says those who were had a harrowing experience.
"They obviously went through a very traumatic situation," says Peers. "I don't think it's something that they'll put behind them very quickly."
Peers says the brigade's chief and deputy chief were inside the hall at the time, along with a registrant and a representative from the EMO office.
"They were in an enclosed room (when they started hearing gunshots), they just basically hit the floor, turned the tables over, went into the crouch position, and luckily," he adds, "first thing is, nobody was physically injured."
The incident at the Onslow fire hall is an extreme example of the kind of stress several volunteer fire departments experienced during the tragedy.
Several volunteer fire departments throughout Colchester County responded during the massacre, attending the scenes of multiple fires and shootings.
Rev. Scott Penner is with the fire service association's critical incident stress management team. He's also the chaplain for the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade.
He's attended a debriefing for one other volunteer department in the area, to help members cope with the tragic events that took place.
"It's pretty extreme," he says, "and as is the case so often in rural communities, the responders often know the victims, that's tough, that adds a dynamic."
Peers says his work as a facilitator involves getting members to talk about what they witnessed and giving them coping strategies.
He says everyone handles the events differently.
"It really varies depending on the degree of the proximity to events, and exposure to them," he says. "So it varies from little effect, to huge (effects), changing the ability to concentrate, sleep patterns, even withdrawing," Peers says.
"It can have an enormous effect on people's lives, and they're seeing some of that for sure."
Back in Lower Onslow, Clair Peers says the fire chief and the deputy chief are both receiving counseling to help cope with the trauma they experienced. The Brigade also had a debriefing for all its members.
Peers says the events have affected all of the community's volunteer firefighters, especially with the shooting incident happening at a time when the tragedy was soon close to home.
One thing that has changed, Peers says, is that their fire hall, which was once seen as a safe haven during emergencies, now feels different.
"It was kind of the community's safe place," he says, "so this kind of makes it look different."
"Where is safe," he asks?
A question many Nova Scotians have likely asked themselves in the aftermath of the tragedy.