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CREW OF PUMPER 323 TRY TO PROCESS THE TRAGEDY IN TORONTO’S GREEKTOWN
The alarm started as quiet beeps then louder ones, a kind of staccato thump like a heartbeat through the firehall. It was a cue, for the firefighters watching Shark Week on Sunday night, to listen for dispatch. A voice came through the speakers after the alarm stopped:
“Pumper 323, respond. Medical. Crime-related. 484 Danforth.”
The four-man crew for Pumper 323, stationed a few blocks off Danforth Avenue in Toronto’s Greektown, pulled on their bunker pants. Steve Tombs, the driver, stopped at the alarm room on his way to the garage and grabbed a printout with more information from dispatch. He read it and called out to the others: “Gunshots.”
It didn’t make much sense. All four knew the address, 484 Danforth, as the fountain — the centre of a little cobblestone square surrounded by Greek restaurants and coffee shops with awnings stretching over patios. The crew go by there most days, waving at kids, to get their groceries at the two competing vegetable markets beside the square — careful not to show a preference for one over the other while in uniform. It’s a place where old men from the neighbourhood drink coffee on stone benches.
“We just thought there’s no way,” said Matthew Spagnolo, who’s been at the station off Danforth for a decade. It was more likely some kid lit off a Roman candle and spooked the crowd, he thought.
In the truck, Spagnolo and Tony Buonfiglio put on latex gloves in the back. Up front, the crew’s captain, Jim Mechano, read updates on the computer. It showed multiple people shot, possibly 10 to 15. The shooter, it said, fled west down Danforth.
They started hearing sirens, then police cruisers roaring past them on Danforth as if their fire truck was standing still.
“That’s when we all decided, ‘OK this is for real,’ ” Buonfiglio said.
At that point, Pumper 323 was the only one en route to the scene. Cpt. Mechano called into his radio:
“Dispatch another pumper.”
Two days after the shooting, Tony Buonfiglio brought his four-year-old son to the fountain.
“I just wanted to see it normal,” he said.
“Having grown up in that neighbourhood, I don’t know, I thought it might have made me feel better, being there with somebody that gives me the most incredible feeling I’ ve ever had in my life—my little guy.”
It didn’t help much. Buonfiglio, 46, responded to that call by chance. He doesn’t normally work with Pumper 323, but was filling in for one of the regulars.
He spent his childhood living just off Danforth. His mom still lives there. His aunt’s house is up the road from the fountain. Buonfiglio didn’t tell his son why they were going to the fountain or what happened there two days earlier — for the boy, it was just a walk through the square and a visit with grandma. But for Buonfiglio, looking at the square now, he was still seeing it, thinking how there were victims right here, over there.
“This one is weighing more than heavy,” he said. “It’s a stain.”
In the days after, he was watching the news, piecing it all together, realizing he was doing CPR on a young woman, with no idea that at the same time the gunman — identified as 29-year-old Faisal Hussain — was still walking down Danforth, still shooting. The wind and the sirens must have muffled the sound of gunshots three or four blocks away.
As their truck pulled up to the square, Spagnolo turned to Buonfiglio in the back seat. “We’re together,” he told him.
People were screaming, running around, some filming on their phones. One woman was looking around the square, calling out her daughter’s name over and over.
Mechano scanned around, trying to count the victims. He saw three men at the curb by the fire truck, all with gunshot wounds in their legs. But at least one civilian was helping each man. They were conscious and they had good colour in their faces and not much blood coming from their wounds. They could wait, because farther, by the west edge of the square, a woman was lying by a honey locust tree.
Mechano could see two men performing CPR on the woman. One was doing chest compressions while the other was putting pressure on the wound in her abdomen. “Once you see CPR being done on a gunshot victim,” he said, “you know the chances of survival aren’t too good.”
He told Spagnolo and Buonfiglio to go to her. Then he radioed in to dispatch.
“How many ambulances are coming?” he asked. “One.”
“Send me three more.” As Buonfiglio and Spagnolo moved across the square, a man stopped them. He said he was a doctor. He said the girl by the tree didn’t haveapulse.
When they got to her, she was unconscious. Buonfiglio and Spagnolo thanked the two men helping her.
“Did you guys see what happened?” Spagnolo asked them.
All they could say was she’d been shot several times. There was a cellphone lying beside her, ringing. They didn’t know whose it was; they assumed it was hers.
Buonfiglio started compressions while Spagnolo opened the defibrillator. Usually, to apply the defibrillator pads to the chest, they’ll use their shears to cut off the patient’s shirt first.
“But you’re out in public,” Buonfiglio said, “and there was no way I was going to take away any more of her dignity.”
Her name was Reese Fallon, they found out later. She was 18, just finished high school and headed to McMaster University in the fall to study nursing.
They managed to apply the pads without using the shears. From there, the defibrillator machine assessed the heartbeat and gave instructions on whether to give a shock or not. There needed to be a heartbeat for there to be a shock.
“No shock,” it said. So they continued with chest compressions and breaths. The phone was still ringing beside her.
They kept going — more compressions, more breaths. They’d done three rounds by the time a paramedic arrived.
Spagnolo and Buonfiglio plugged their defibrillator pads into the paramedic’s more sophisticated machine and continued.
The paramedic watched the feedback on the machine, talking on the phone to a doctor at their base hospital. The CPR wasn’t working, wasn’t bringing her back. It was up to the doctor to decide whether they kept going.
“We continue until we’re told to stop,” Buonfiglio said.
After another round of CPR, the machine still wasn’t registering a heartbeat. The phone was still buzzing.
“It was ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing,” Spagnolo said. “Vibrating, dancing on the sidewalk right off the curb.”
“Someone was looking for her,” Buonfiglio said.
“I have a daughter,” Spagnolo said. “It made what was happening there, like, too real and too relatable.”
After 10 or 12 minutes, the doctor at the hospital made the call to stop CPR. Spagnolo saw it coming. A police officer came by and asked if Spagnolo and Buonfiglio needed anything.
“Yeah,” Spagnolo said. “We need a sheet.”
“In my mind I knew we owed her the dignity.”
The two of them stood up and saw what looked like little gold thimbles, five or six of them. There was a rectangular piece of metal there too. Looking at them, they realized they’d been kneeling around bullet casings and an ammunition clip.
On Wednesday night, there was a vigil at the fountain. Hundreds of people walked from where the gunman died, near Bowden Street, down the middle of Danforth four or five blocks to the square where the shooting started. As the sun dropped down, two teenagers from the neighbourhood got up on stage and played Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Some women joined in and by the chorus it felt like the whole square was singing, hundreds of them, packed together and spilling out into the street.
The crew from Pumper 323 was there. It was their first shift back. Buonfiglio said he wanted to be there, “standing and letting people know that there are more good people than bad.”
They stood there, metres away from that honey locust tree, as people milled around the square and filed out after the vigil. Back at the firehall, the four of them sat at their long, white kitchen table and talked.
“There’s certain things that will stick in your head,” Spagnolo said. For him, and Buonfiglio, it was the cellphone ringing, with someone on the other end trying to find out if Reese Fallon was OK.
Buonfiglio face tightened, pushing back tears.
“Reese wasn’t alone,” he said.
“She wasn’t alone,” Spagnolo repeated. “She wasn’t neglected. She had every resource.”
“We care. We care, man,” Buonfiglio said. “We care.” He says it again and again, trailing off.
“That day,” he said, “Reese needed our help and unfortunately I feel like I ...”
Mechano broke in, staring across the table at him.
“You did everything you could,” he said firmly. “You did. Both of yous did. There was nothing else you could have done. So don’t dare, for one minute, think you didn’t do enough. Not for one minute.” A police officer told Spagnolo and Buonfiglio to leave their defibrillator where it was, attached to the young woman’s body. It was now a crime scene. They went back to the truck to get new gloves.
Mechano was at the truck when they got there, keeping dispatchers updated on what washappening.
Spagnolo told Mechano he could reach him on his cell, since there was so much traffic on the radio. “We’re just going to go help as many people as possible,” he said.
They heard there was somebody wounded in Christina’s, a restaurant a few doors down from the square. There was a woman, maybe in her 30s, with a gunshot wound in her hip. Another set of firefighters was already with her. When Buonfiglio and Spagnolo arrived, they helped pull her out on a stretcher and into an ambulance.
They saw Steve Tombs, the fire truck driver, on a patio nearby. He was with a man who was slumped over with a gunshot to his side. The man’s wife was there too, and a dentist who bandaged the wound. Tombs could tell the man was scared.
“Don’t worry buddy, I’m not going to leave you,” Tombs told him.
He and the dentist cleared the scattered tables and chairs from the patio to make way for a stretcher. As the ambulance arrived, a captain from one of the other fire crews walked by and Tombs could hear his radio. Someone was saying there had been another shooting west on Danforth.
“A little more of the worry set in my head, like, ‘Oh, this isn’t over yet.’ ”
Until then, the crew thought the fountain was the main scene — maybe a targeted shooting that hit a slew of innocent bystanders.
“There’s got to be someone here that was an intended target,” Spagnolo remembered thinking. “Is someone going to come back around and finish the job?”
Tombs, back together with Spagnolo and Buonfiglio, went to Alexandros, a gyros place facing the square, to check in on two young firefighters who were tending to a man who was shot in the leg.
Buonfiglio pulled off the man’s shoe and pressed on his toenail until it turned white, watching to see if the blood flowed back into the nail, as it should — “to make sure that his leg wasn’t dying in front of us,” he said. Buonfiglio gave a thumbs-up to the young firefighters.
It had been roughly half an hour since Pumper 323 arrived on scene. Police with high-powered rifles — some in street clothes, others in uniform — were running up and down Danforth now. One officer guarded every storefront.
Tombs told the other two
IS SOMEONE GOING TO COME BACK AROUND AND FINISH THE JOB?
what he’d overheard on the radio: There was another shooting at 400 Danforth, a few blocks west. It was Caffe Demetre.
“We’re going west,” they told Mechano. “Call us if you need us.”
The three firefighters went to see if they could help. They walked in the middle of the street, alone accept for rushing police officers. There was vomit in the street. The patios were empty, with scattered purses and jackets. Tables were knocked over; others still had plates with half-eaten meals and half-drunk wine glasses. People were huddled in the restaurants, waiting for police to escort them away.
“There’s bullet holes in the bank. There’s bullet holes in Second Cup. There’s bullet holes in parked cars,” Spagnolo said.
“Apocalyptic,’” he said. “We’re going, ‘This is insane … What the hell is going on here?’”
Another crew was pulling a man out of Caffe Demetre on a stretcher when the three from Pumper 323 got there.
“Is there anything we can do?” they asked the other fire crew.
“Nope, we’re just getting this guy out of here right now.”
After the man left in an ambulance, the crew from Pumper 323 started talking with other firefighters who’d been called to the café.
“They’re kinda like, ‘Holy s--- did you hear what happened down here?’ And ‘We’re like, yeah holy s--- did you hear what happened down there?’” Spagnolo said.
“You kind of start piecing it all together.”
“You realize,” Buonfiglio said, “Oh my God, this is one big f------ scene.”
Nearby, a long line of police tape, SUVs and parked cruisers blocked off an intersection at Bowden Street. Peering over barricades, Spagnolo could make out a body beneath a green tarp, lying in front of a church on Danforth.
Officers were standing around in clumps, chatting. Spagnolo relaxed a bit, seeing guys from the Emergency Task Force idle like that. He and the two others from Pumper 323 walked back to the truck and Mechano, back again down the middle of Danforth Avenue.
“It was surreal,” Spagnolo said.
People who had been locked down in restaurants and cafés were being escorted out in single-file lines, with an armed officer at the front and another at the back.
Back at the square, the firefighters waited for clearance from police to pull their trucks out. The crews from Pumpers 322 and 324 were milling around.
“Guys,” Spagnolo said, walking up to them. “Whatever happened, the shooter’s dead.
“We think it’s over.”