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Lyn Cockburn

Fri, November 16, 2007
Taser tragedy a mess of errors

By Lyn Cockburn

It's on film but this is not The Terminal with Tom Hanks. There is no Catherine Zeta Jones to fall in love with, no humorous airport attendants. And there is certainly no happy ending.

Instead, a video released Wednesday features Robert Dziekanski, 40, a prospective new Canadian. He arrived from Poland at Vancouver International Airport around 4 p.m. on Oct 13. And he died at Vancouver International Airport in the early hours of Oct. 14.

Everything went wrong. His mother, Zofia Cisowski, had told him to wait for her in the baggage area, forgetting it is a secure area. When she realized her mistake, she begged to be let in. She was refused and nobody went to look for her son.

Some six hours later, Cisowski, who'd driven the 366 kilometres from Kamloops to meet her only son, was told he wasn't there. She was told to go home.

Sadly, not long after, Dziekanski, who'd been sitting in the secured area about 100 metres away from his mother, finally cleared customs.

His mother, understandably distraught, was already on her way back to Kamloops.

In a TV interview, Cisowski said in the manner of all mothers: "If only ... " She explains that she could have arranged for her son to transfer through to a flight to Kamloops. But she decided to meet him in Vancouver because she wanted to drive him to his new home and show him "how beautiful Canada is."

After getting through customs, Dziekanski who spoke no English, found nobody to help him - no mother, no translator. He'd had nothing to eat or drink in hours and had quit smoking the day before.

A couple of people did try to help. One even tried to use a nearby phone to call for a translator. The phone did not work. One woman momentarily calmed an obviously agitated Dziekanski, but she couldn't understand him and he couldn't understand her.

Video confiscated

Around 1:15 a.m., Paul Pritchard, 25, who was returning from Asia, started recording the scene. His video, originally confiscated by the RCMP and returned only when he threatened to sue, was shown in part on national TV on Wednesday.

We see Dziekanski, sweating, pacing, breathing hard as he picks up a small table as though to protect himself. Then he throws the table and a computer. He has become physical, but certainly not dangerous.

Four RCMP officers arrive and some 20 seconds later, one of them Tasers the confused man with 50,000 volts. Witnesses say the man was Tasered four times; the RCMP say twice. The police also insist they did not use pepper spray because there were too many people around. Witnesses refute that statement.

The video shows a stricken Dziekanski falling to the floor. Immediately, the officers pile on and one puts his knee on the man's neck. The video faithfully records his screams. It shows him convulsing. And then he lies still. He is dead.

One report states that the minute he cleared customs, his documents checked and accepted, he became a Canadian because his mother had sponsored him. If this is correct, Dziekanski died a Canadian citizen.

Cisowski did not learn of her son's death until hours later when she came back from Kamloops on the bus.

It was a mess of errors from beginning to end, a tragedy that need not have happened, a lesson in how not to greet newcomers to Canada.

Not to mention, an incident which clearly shows how easy it is to use a Taser instead of common sense.

And to put a finishing touch on this deadly exercise in insensitivity, a caller to a Vancouver radio talk show grumbled that Dziekanski had plenty of time to learn English before he came to Canada and none of this would have happened had he done so.

E-mail Lyn Cockburn at
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