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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Language help came too late for taser victim

March 30, 2008
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA -- A border services officer who spoke a few words of Robert Dziekanski's native tongue may have come within minutes of helping avert the Polish immigrant's death, newly released documents show.

Dziekanski died in the wee hours of Oct. 14 after the RCMP zapped the 40-year-old with a Taser and pinned him to the floor of the Vancouver International Airport.

Police fired the stun gun less than 30 seconds after arriving on the scene of a sweaty, agitated Dziekanski tossing furniture in frustration following more than nine hours in the airport.

Internal documents and accompanying security camera video of Dziekanski provide fresh glimpses into the confusing sequence of events that led up to the tragedy.

Citing ongoing investigations into Dziekanski's death, the Canada Border Services Agency declined to be interviewed about what happened at the airport or to make employees who were present that night available for comment.

But the records, obtained from the CBSA by The Canadian Press and CBC under the Access to Information Act, help flesh out a series of encounters with several border staffers.

On the video, Dziekanski at first resembles any other first-time visitor to a foreign country. He can be seen calmly pulling his rollaway luggage through airport corridors -- a striking contrast with the turmoil that would soon ensue.

Officer's recollection

Border Services officer Adam Chapin was called upon to help Dziekanski about 90 minutes before the shooting as the befuddled newcomer, who spoke almost no English, tried to navigate his way through a maze of airport procedures.

"The client appeared dishevelled, his hair was uncombed and his shirt was untucked,'' Chapin wrote in a two-page account of his dealings with the Polish man.

Dziekanski had already spent several hours in the CBSA's arrival hall. He was unaware that his mother Sofia, who had travelled from Kamloops, could not enter the secure area to greet him.

She returned home after being unable to find her son.

Dziekanski eventually continued on through customs and to an immigration desk so his landing documents could be processed.

His dream of reuniting with family in a vast and mysterious country he had only read about appeared a step closer.

A phone message was left for his family in Kamloops, and there was a check of the public area to see if anyone was waiting for him. No interpreter was available. Chapin, who spoke a bit of Polish, helped a fellow officer approve Dziekanski's documents.

A short time later Chapin was handling passengers arriving from Mexico when he noticed Dziekanski sitting down. He approached the bewildered passenger and offered some help.

"I again explained to the subject that he was done and he could go. He said, `OK, good' (in Polish).''

Chapin noted that Dziekanski "did stumble at one point but was able to steady himself'' with his luggage cart and walk the remaining steps to the final customs checkpoint without difficulty.

He then helped the Polish man find his declaration card, which he had tucked inside a bag, and coded the card accordingly.

"I wished the subject goodnight and he wished me goodnight and said thank you,'' Chapin recalled.

"The client never exhibited any hostile or angry behaviour while I or any other officer dealt with him. The client was thankful for the help.''

Just after 2 a.m., Chapin was packing up for the night when he answered a call from Dziekanski's mother, looking for Robert from Poland. He assured Sofia he knew her son, that he was about to leave, and would look for him on the way out.

"I told her that if I did find him I would bring him to the immigration office so that he could call her back.''

Chapin began combing through the airport welcoming hall. When he saw no sign of him, he approached a Mountie.

"I told him I was trying to pass on a message. The RCMP officer then took me inside to get some details.

"It is at this point that I observed the subject on the floor by the visitors' booth being attended to by paramedics."

About 30 seconds later, they pronounced Dziekanski dead, Chapin wrote.

"I then assisted the RCMP in locating his documents from the subject's bags.''

An account prepared by the evening's acting superintendent said Dziekanski was "assisted beyond the normal level of client processing.''

He was given five or six glasses of water. His luggage was retrieved for him. Staff helped find his documents. Numerous attempts were made to contact his family. He was assisted to the exit. And once his family reached staff by phone, there was an effort to locate him.

CBSA review

In November, the CBSA announced several steps including a review of services to international travellers, installation of more cameras in the agency's area of the Vancouver airport, consideration of additional patrols and security checks, and changes to ensure people report for secondary examination within a reasonable time.

Walter Kosteckyj, a lawyer for the Dziekanski family, says the agency's efforts lacked overall co-ordination.

"Clearly here was a guy that was totally lost and no one decided to track someone down that could actually help him,'' Kosteckyj said.

"How is it that when you let a guy go, finally, and he is clearly lost and doesn't want to leave that there is no one you can turn him over to?

"There is nowhere to turn over a lost soul, because that is what he was.''

After speaking with Chapin, the RCMP did not call Dziekanski's mother to relay the awful news.

She returned to the Vancouver airport from Kamloops late the next morning. Upon hearing of Robert's death, she fell to the floor and cried.

Kosteckyj says the RCMP didn't tell her the whole story. She went back to Kamloops not knowing how her son died, later learning of the Taser shock from a television report.

Kosteckyj says five months after the terrible psychological blow, Sofia is not doing well.

"She is unable to work. And it appears from everything that I have seen so far, that it's very unlikely that she is going to recover.''

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