What seed company executive Todd Hyra first thought was an annoying construction noise disrupting his meeting on Parliament Hill Oct. 22 turned out to be gunfire.
“It sounded like somebody was doing sheet metal work,” Hyra, SeCan’s Winnipeg-based business manager for Western Canada, said in an interview Oct. 24. “Then within a few seconds a security guard came running into the room and locked the door at the opposite end of the hall. Then we proceeded to get low and wait.”
Not long after they heard another deafening volley of bullets, which they later learned had been captured on video by a Globe and Mail reporter and widely broadcast to a stunned Canadian public.
“We didn’t see anything, but were just down the hall,” said Hyra, who was with the rest of SeCan’s 16-member staff meeting with parliamentarians in the Conservative lounge adjacent to the floor of the House of Commons.
They barricaded the door with chairs and tables, Hyra said.
The most unnerving part came soon after the shooting stopped and they heard a commotion coming from the floor of the House of Commons.
“We didn’t know what was going on, on the other side of those doors — the relatively light doors separating us from the House of Commons — and there was a lot of noise going on there and shouting and we didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said.
It was security guards herding reporters to safety.
An hour after the first shots, and security officials had confirmed the gunman had been killed, the group started to relax a bit, Hyra said. But it was still unclear whether the gunman, later identified as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was alone.
Zehaf-Bibeau, reportedly a radicalized convert to Islam, drug addict and petty criminal, stormed Parliament after gunning down Cpl. Nathan Cirillo as he stood guard at Canada’s War Memorial.
Hyra, his colleagues and Bev Shipley, Conservative MP for Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, who had been showing them around Parliament, were “locked down” until 8 p.m. that evening — with only access to water, mints and caramels and no washrooms. “We had to make do. I’ll leave it at that.”
Several times security officials frantic to protect MPs tried in vain to get Shipley to leave the group.
“MP Shipley, he was amazing the entire day,” Hyra said. “He never left us.
“He walked us to our hotel at the end of the day. Just a class act. I’m really impressed with him as an MP and a person.”
The group followed events on their cellphones, Hyra said. And they were also able to text family to let them know they were safe.
“Everybody was concerned but generally calm and composed through the whole ordeal,” Hyra said. “I don’t think we realized how close we were to danger at the start.”
A security guard asked if everyone in the group knew each other to be sure none was an accomplice.
Before being bused off Parliament Hill, everyone was interviewed by the RCMP about what they saw and heard. They had to provide photo identification, their names, addresses and phone numbers.
“The fresh air walking back after the buses dropped us off away from the restricted area felt good. It felt good just to walk and be out in the outdoors and look back and feel the fresh air.”
Although confined for more than 10 hours, Hyra said others were worse off with some huddled under their desks that whole time.
After getting to their hotel the group ordered a pizza, had a drink and reflected on what had happened.
SeCan’s annual staff meeting is partly about team building.
“We’ve done some events before and we’ve always enjoyed our meetings and time together, but this one, nobody will ever forget,” Hyra said.
The day after their ordeal, SeCan employees continued their meeting, just as parliamentarians returned to work in a show of solidarity.
“It’s unfortunate the lives that were lost and the changes it has made, but we are fortunate to have made it out safely.
“Every time I have the opportunity I like to walk those halls (of Parliament). It’s a great privilege to do so and I hope that is not lost in all this.
“Our hearts and thoughts go out to him (Cpl. Cirillo). Every time I see someone in uniform I have more respect than ever before.”