By Hina Alam
Shelli Fryer was wide awake at 2:54 am on Canada Day and was hoping the stack of messages that has been mounting over the past few days could help her to close her eyes.
The 59-year-old woman, from Langford, BC, said she has had trouble sleeping since Tuesday when she was held hostage in a violent bank shooting in Saanich.
The messages, which have since come in, have offered her some of the comfort she sought and commended her bravery during the ordeal.
“There’s just so much love I get from all these strangers,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s overwhelming.”
Six police officers were shot dead and two male suspects killed in Tuesday’s shootout with police outside the Bank of Montreal in Saanich.
Police said multiple explosive devices were found in a vehicle linked to the two men, who have yet to be identified. Officials are still investigating the possibility of a third suspect.
Since then, Fryer has been replaying the events of Tuesday morning in his mind.
She pulled her blue Ford Bronco into the bank’s parking lot to meet the manager at 11 a.m. about a loan. Within a minute or two of sitting down in his glass-panelled office, Fryer said they heard a loud bang.
“The manager said, ‘We’re being robbed.’ He knew immediately.”
The 17 women and five men in the store that day all went straight to the gray floor, Fryer said. She described the suspects as dressed all in black, including balaclavas, gloves, jackets, vests, body armor and pads covering the calves from the knee down.
A suspect came up to the bank manager and said “vault room,” she recalled.
“He stared straight at me twice. 20 seconds,” she said. “But I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his mouth. I couldn’t see any skin tone at all.”
The manager tried to hand over the keys, but the suspect pointed to the vault and they walked away together, leaving Fryer in the room. She waited for the shooter to pick her up.
“I think he forgot about me,” she said.
Fryer hit the ground and called the police. Her phone’s call log shows she dialed 911 at 11:04 am
She whispered a description of the situation into the phone, all the while fearing she would draw attention by breaking the “eerie silence” that had settled over the branch, she said.
She left the phone on so 911 workers could hear what was going on, turned the volume down so suspects couldn’t hear if emergency responders were speaking, and covered the phone with her long pink skirt so it wasn’t visible , she said .
For what “felt like an eternity,” she said, there was “dead silence.”
Fryer said she experienced little fear and no dramatic moments as she hid behind a chair, which she doubted offered much protection.
“Actually, it was more like, ‘I think we’re going to get out of there,'” she said. “I have to call the police here though. I’ll just inform the police. If the police come, everything will be fine.”
But then there was “an almighty hail of bullets,” she said, gasping at the remembered shock.
She then 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 reminded her to “just breathe.”
“‘The worst thing that’s going to happen is those shots go right through the drywall and you get hit,'” she recalled the thought.
Fryer’s phone reads her call as 911, and the ordeal lasted one hour, 26 minutes and five seconds.
While Fryer’s memories of the attack are vivid, she said the rest of the day passed in a jumble of police interrogations, arrangements to get her car and finally an Asian meal with her daughter.
The trauma of being held hostage comes in waves, she said. Fryer has spoken to police and victim services about how she is feeling and has been told it will take time to process what she has been through.
“It’s a back and forth, you know? It’s like sadness. You go through all the stadiums, right? Sometimes you may never reach the last step.”
But in the quiet moments, Fryer said, she remembers most often the police walking through the bank door and hearing their concern for those trapped inside.
“The first words every officer said to us were, ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you.’ Even if they just walked in from the shots,” she said. “…And much, much later we find out that six of their brothers in arms were shot and injured.”
She felt “terrible” and “guilty” for not thinking to ask officers if officers were injured, she said, despite inquiring about the well-being of civilians.
“And all of her energy and body language going in and out of the crime scene gave us no reason even to think about asking, ‘Were officers hurt?'”
Saanich Police Chief Const. Dean Duthie said three of the officers remain hospitalized, including one in intensive care, while another will require further surgeries.
Fryer was born in Chicago and moved to Canada when he was seven. Her experience with the police over the past week made her “particularly proud” to be Canadian, she said.
Since Tuesday, when she first began speaking out about her experiences at the bank, Fryer said she’s received messages from people she knew in another life, in addition to strangers.
She got an email from her first roommate, who she lived with while she got her first job after high school when she was 18.
“We lived together for about eight years and I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. I haven’t seen her since 1989. She got in touch. Isn’t that funny?” she said.
“This is going to change my life in so many ways and I’m very grateful right now because it could be really cool.”
Fryer was also able to find levity – like what to do with the outfit she wore to the bank on Tuesday – a long-sleeved shirt, a pink maxi skirt and pink heeled sandals.
“I’ll throw it away,” she said. “I’ve had it for so long anyway. Or should I frame it. But I also really liked it.”
She even plans to return to the bank, whose staff she showed incredible professionalism under pressure and whose manager described her as unflappable.
“I have to finish my appointment,” she said, laughing. “I sat down for two minutes. We were interrupted.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 2, 2022.