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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Worker who could have translated told he wasn't needed, B.C. Taser inquiry hears

February 11, 2009
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER, B.C. — An airport worker offered to translate for Robert Dziekanski minutes before he was stunned by an RCMP Taser and died on the floor of Vancouver's airport.

Karol Vrba, a maintenance worker at the airport and rookie firefighter, told a public inquiry into Dziekanski's death on Tuesay that he was told by airport staff that he wasn't needed.

The airport's operation centre began to receive calls early the morning of Oct. 14, 2007, about a man throwing furniture in the international arrivals area of the airport.

They were told the man didn't speak English - possibly Russian - and were asked to send the RCMP.

Vrba told the inquiry that he walked into the operations centre and saw people on the phone. He asked a woman in the office, where the security response was being co-ordinated, what was happening. "I talked to her, and asked her what's going on, and she told me there is a guy probably speaking Russian in the international terminal and he's doing a disturbance," Vrba told the inquiry.

Vrba speaks English, Czech, Slovak, Russian and some Polish. "So I told her, 'You know I speak Russian, so if you need me you can reach me on my radio."' The woman's response, said Vrba, was simply, "Don't worry about it."

Vrba left the office, completed his task and returned 40 minutes later.

By then, four RCMP officers had confronted Dziekanski and stunned him with a Taser five times. He was lying dead on the floor of the airport.

"So I told them, 'Why you didn't call me on my radio? I told you I can help,"' said Vrba. "I was shocked I wasn't called."

Even though security personnel had Dziekanski's language wrong, Vrba said he still would have been able to communicate with the man in Polish. Vrba, who was born in Czechoslovakia in what is now Slovakia, said he and Dziekanski would have been able to understand one another if they spoke slowly. In addition to speaking a "little bit" of Polish, Vrba said Slovak and Polish are very similar.

The airport, Canada Border Services Agency and the RCMP have all been criticized for not calling a translator.

Dziekanski had been lost in the airport for nearly 10 hours when he started throwing furniture.

A border officer has previously testified that she considered calling a translator. But even if she had, all but one of the numbers listed in the border agency's database were out of date and the one translator available didn't like to be contacted for short calls.

An airline employee said that she, too, considered contacting a translator, but couldn't reach the computer where the number was listed because Dziekanski was blocking a doorway.

Witnesses have said that as officers approached, they were told that Dziekanski didn't speak English.

The RCMP officers involved are scheduled to appear at the inquiry at a later date.

Meanwhile, a witness told the inquiry earlier Tuesday that after Dziekanski was shocked with the Taser, an officer pinned him to the floor with a knee to his back. Nick Le, a limo driver who was at the airport to pick up a passenger, said he happened upon the scene after Dziekanski was shocked. Le said he saw three of the officers hovering over Dziekanski; two of them were holding Dziekanski's hands. "What I saw is one of the officers use his knee right on top of the centre back of the man," said Le. "And that is very dangerous."

A lawyer for one of the officers, David Butcher, immediately objected to Le's characterization, saying he should stick to his observations, not his opinion. But Le said he has studied martial arts since he was four years old, and he felt the officer's actions were dangerous.

Le said he watched paramedics and firefighters pounding on Dziekanski's chest as he lay on the floor. By that time, firefighters have told the inquiry, Dziekanski was likely already dead.

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