Shelli Fryer was wide awake at 2:54 on Canada Day and hoped the stack of messages piling up in recent days could help her close her eyes.
The 59-year-old Langford, B.C., woman said she’s been having trouble sleeping since Tuesday when she was among those held hostage during a violent bank shooting in Saanich.
The messages pouring in since then, she said, have offered some of the comfort she’s sought and commended her bravery during the ordeal.
“There is just so much love I’m getting from all these strangers,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s overwhelming.”
Six officers were shot and 22-year-old twin brothers identified as Mathew and Isaac Auchterlonie from Duncan, B.C., were killed in the shootout with police on Tuesday outside the Bank of Montreal in Saanich.
Police have said multiple explosive devices were found in a vehicle linked to the two men, who have yet to be identified. Officers are still investigating the possibility of a third suspect.
Fryer has been mentally replaying Tuesday morning’s events ever since.
She pulled her blue Ford Bronco into the bank’s parking lot for an 11 a.m. appointment with the manager about a loan. Within a minute or two of sitting down in his glass-panelled office, Fryer said they heard a loud boom.
“The manager said ‘we’re being robbed’. He knew right away.”
The 17 women and five men in the branch that day all got on the grey floor immediately, Fryer said. She described the suspects as wearing all black including balaclavas, gloves, jackets, vests, body armour and pads covering the calves from the knee down.
One suspect came up to the bank manager and said “vault,” she recalled.
“He stared right at me twice. For 20 seconds,” she said. “But I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his mouth. I couldn’t see any skin tone whatsoever.”
The manager tried to hand over the keys but the suspect pointed towards the vault and they walked off together, leaving Fryer in the room. She waited for the gunman to come back for her.
“I think he forgot about me,” she said.
Fryer got down on the floor and called the police. Her phone’s call log shows she dialed 911 at 11:04 a.m.
She whispered a description of the situation into the phone, fearing all the while she’d draw attention to herself by breaking the “eerie silence” that had descended on the branch, she said.
She left the phone on so the 911 operators could hear what was going on, turned down the volume so the suspects couldn’t hear if emergency personnel spoke and covered the phone with her long pink skirt so it wouldn’t be visible, she said.
For what “felt like an eternity,” she said there was “dead silence.”
Fryer said she felt little fear and experienced no dramatic moments as she hid behind a chair she doubted offered much protection.
“It was actually more like, ‘I think we’re gonna get out of this,’” she said. “I need to get the police though here. I’m just gonna let the police know. If the police get here, it will be OK.”
But then an “almighty hail of gunfire” rang out, she said, gasping at the remembered shock.
That’s when she ran and hid alone under a shelf in the manager’s office while others took shelter in a filing room.
Fryer said that while she felt the urge to panic with one half of her brain, the other half was reminding her to “just breathe.”
“‘The worst thing that’s going to happen is, those shots will go right through the drywall and you’re going to be hit,’” she remembered thinking.
Fryer’s phone shows her call with 911, and the ordeal, lasted one hour, 26 minutes and five seconds.
While Fryer’s recollections of the attack are sharp, she said the rest of the day passed in a blur of police interviews, arrangements to retrieve her car and finally a meal of Asian food with her daughter.
The trauma of being held hostage comes in waves, she said. Fryer has spoken with police and victim services about how she feels, and she said she’s been told it will take time to process what she’s been through.
“It’s back and forth, you know? It’s like grief. You go through the whole stages, right? Sometimes you may never hit the last stage.”
But in the quiet moments, Fryer said she most often remembers seeing police walk through the bank door and hearing their concern for those trapped inside.
“The first words each and every officer said to us was, ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you.’ Even when they just came in from the gunfire,” she said. “… And much, much later we find out that six of their brothers-in-arms had been shot and injured.”
She feels “horrible” and “guilty” because she didn’t think about asking the officers whether any police had been injured, she said, though she and others inquired after the welfare of civilians.
“And each and every one of their energy and body language walking in and out of the crime scene did not give us any reason to even think to ask, ‘were any officers injured?’”
Saanich police Chief Const. Dean Duthie said three of the officers remain in hospital, including one in intensive care, while another will require more surgeries.
Fryer was born in Chicago and came to Canada when she was seven. Her experience with the police last week has made her feel “extra proud” to be Canadian, she said.
Since Tuesday when she started talking about her experience at the bank, Fryer said apart from strangers she’s also got messages from people whom she knew in another lifetime.
She got an email from her first roommate with whom she lived while working her first job after graduating high school when she was 18.
“We lived together for like eight years, and I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. I haven’t seen her since 1989. She reached out. Isn’t that funny?” she said.
“This is going to be life changing in many ways for me and I’m very grateful now because it could be very cool.”
Fryer has also been able to find levity — such as what to do with the outfit she was wearing on Tuesday at the bank - a long sleeve shirt, pink maxi skirt and pink high-heeled sandals.
“I’m going to throw it out,” she said. “I’ve had it for so long anyway. Or I should frame it. I really liked it too, though.”
She even plans to return to the bank, whose employees she said showed incredible professionalism under duress and whose manager she described as unflappable.
“I have to finish my appointment,” she said with a laugh. “I sat down for two minutes. We got interrupted.”
– Hina Alam, The Canadian Press