Coping in aftermath of a terrorist attack

Sandrine Murray
VJN News

When Martin Magnan tried in vain to save Cpl. Nathan Cirillo after he had been shot at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Oct. 22, 2014, he was terrified.

“I don’t know why I ran over there, but I know it was the right thing to do,” Magnan told VJN.

Magnan and five others — Margaret Lerhe, Cpl. Kyle Button, Col. Conrad Mialkowsky, Cpl. Anthony Wiseman and Barbara Winters — faced uncertainty and unknown risk to run to Cirillo’s aid while other bystanders ran away. 

The six who were awarded the St. John Ambulance Service gold medal for their bravery were all strangers before the attack. Today, Magnan says, they share a special bond because they had the same experience.

“Some of us have adapted; others are still having challenges.” Magnan said.

“You know, they’re great people.”

Magnan never saw himself as a victim of the terrorist attack until his daughter pointed out that in a way, circumstance had made him one.

It took him time to recover. Almost two years later, Magnan can say he’s fine but he is not the same person he was before. The National War Memorial is now embedded in his family’s story. While the attack has made him a better man, it took time for him to find his smile again.

Today, things are a little different. He is a little more cautious, and a little more serious. On the other hand, he looks forward to things more, and tries to spread love on a daily basis.

“I try to smile a lot more,” he said. “I realize now that everything could be taken away in a flash.”

Cirillo’s life was taken away in an instant and his killer, Michael Zehaf Bibeau, was gunned down as he stormed Parliament Hill on the day the nation’s capital came to a sudden and unexpected halt.

Frederick John Packer, a law professor and director of the Humans Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, said people often come forward courageously in times of risk.

During the terrorist attack, some of Packer’s colleagues panicked. One in particular, upon learning the shooter had stormed Parliament Hill, worried for her son who was part of the security service.

“She was just so shaken by something so extraordinary,” Packer said. It was outside the scope of risk she could imagine.

The most powerful human emotion is fear — something the six people who tried to save Cirillo felt in the aftermath of the terrorist attack.

“The people who would have been immediately there and assisted him, they would have been thinking, ‘What kind of a crazy world were they in?’” Packer said.

Magnan said that there was a risk for him in choosing to grant interviews with media following the terrorist attack.

“I could see that under stress or under shock you may not be thinking all that correctly,” he said.

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, the effects are far-reaching. Some people can cope with what they saw, heard, and experienced while others have a more difficult time. 

Assistance from counsellors was immediate for Magnan and other witnesses when they were brought to the Ottawa police station.

Instead of letting victims cope alone and find help on their own, the Ottawa police victim crisis unit reached out to see how witnesses to the terrorist attack were doing.

“It’s worth its weight in gold,” Magnan said.

As recommended to him, Magnan had sessions with a psychologist, which helped.

When people recognized him and offered their words of encouragement, Magnan was both humbled and grateful. But what really got him through the rough times was the support from his friends and family, he said.

The response to a terrorist attack runs far deeper than first responders, intelligence and armed forces, Packer said.

In the march 22 Brussels attack, those injured and killed weren’t the only victims. Packer says he doesn’t know if anything is being done to help those left behind or those who witnessed the attacks.  

The survivor guilt, people asking why others died but they survived is a common reaction that needs to be dealt with, Packer said.

Therefore, community care for social and mental health issues of all those affected is significant. This outpouring of support is important, but first is understanding that everyone has an individual disposition.

Being there for each other and having the right resources in place are necessary following a terrorist attack and a message shared by Magnan.

In many ways, the event changed Magnan’s life.

“But you fix it up, and you keep going,” he said.