One released in Edmonton hostage-taking: Witness

By Cigdem Iltan and Ben Gelinas, Edmonton Journal, Global News October 21, 2009 11:21 AM

EDMONTON — One of the hostages being held at gunpoint inside a downtown Edmonton building Wednesday has been released, according to a witness.

A witness who was among a group of employees evacuated from the Workers Compensation Board building after an armed man entered it Wednesday morning said one of the hostages — which were believed to number as many as nine at one point — has been released, and that negotiations were continuing.

There was a report that the hostage-taker had fired at least one gunshot inside the building.

As of Wednesday afternoon the building was still surrounded by dozens of police officers and search dogs.

Police arrived at 8:42 a.m. Wednesday after receiving reports of a man with a rifle.

A witness on the eighth floor told Global News the gunman was in the claims department and she heard what sounded like two gunshots.

Edmonton Police Service spokesman Jeff Wuite told reporters police believe the man "may have several hostages," but he is not certain how many and could not confirm shots were fired.

Workers said they saw a nervous-looking man with a long case sitting on a large plant pot outside the building earlier Wednesday morning.

Contract electrician Brad Herhauf was working inside the building when WCB employees told him a man with a gun was wandering around.

Herhauf was in the data centre at the time and was one of the last people evacuated, he said.

The evacuation was hectic, and several people were crying as they got out of the building, he added.

Investigators are interviewing some of the people who were in the building.

A local news radio station reported the man is wearing a camouflage jacket and carrying a backpack. According to News 880, he has told police he is "mad at the world" and blames a WCB doctor for most of his trouble.

The radio report said the man told the police negotiator he wanted cigarettes and some water, and promised to release one of his hostages in exchange. It's not known if that exchange has taken place.

Police cars have cordoned off the area, with officers crouching behind their cruisers. Police are setting up a command post near the building, said police spokesman Dean Parthenis.

Other people rushed to get off the street.

Workers ran out the front door of the building across the street toward police. We were told to "stay as close to the building as we could when we were leaving," said Wayne Hall, a case manager who works on the sixth floor.

Police ushered WCB employees to a bus shelter outside the old Federal Building near the legislature.

Between 200 and 250 people on the legislature grounds were taken away by chartered city buses.

People, some in their jackets and others in shirt-sleeves, used cellphones to call family members. Several were in tears.

Rene Gobeil works in the Financial Building across the street from the WCB. Gobeil said he started to see police activity shortly after he arrived at work around 8:15 a.m.

"Then a co-worker came in around 10 (minutes) to 9 and said police were cordoning off the street," said Gobeil.

"I can see the 107th Street and 100th Avenue intersection from my window," said Gobeil, "and there's a whole lot of cop cars, and the police tactical unit."

Police ordered everybody out of the WCB building and moved them far enough away so they were not in view of the windows.

The WCB has for several years had a policy of checking whether claimants have criminal records and it flags those who do as a safety precaution for staff handling the claims.

The board said the practice was initiated in response to previous violent incidents at board offices in Edmonton and Calgary.

In past years, there have been several serious incidents of frustrated injured workers exploding with anger.

In 1991, a worker committed suicide with a gun in a Calgary WCB parking lot.

In 1993, a shotgun-toting worker took several hostages at the Calgary office in 1993 before surrendering.

The WCB had direct access to claimant criminal records until 1996, but now must do the checks through city police.

Headed by president and CEO Guy Kerr, the WCB is a no-fault insurance system that was established to compensate workers for their work-related injuries. The program, established by the Alberta government, is funded through premiums paid by employers.

As a trade-off, Albertans covered by WCB cannot sue their employers for work-related injuries. Over the years, there have been many calls for an overhaul of the system to make it more fair to injured workers and a new appeal process was established for workers whose claims have been rejected.

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