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'I was just trying to survive': Remembering the Dawson College shooting

Last Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 12:04 pm EDT

Editor’s note: This story has details about the Dawson College shooting that may be disturbing to some readers.

MONTREAL (CityNews) – It’s been 15 years since the Dawson College shooting in Montreal. When a lone gunman killed 18-year-old Anastasia de Sousa and injured 19 others.

The gunman started firing outside the school at 12:41 p.m. on Sept. 13, 2006 before entering the atrium.

“I still remember everything as if it was yesterday or as if it was today,” said James Santos, a Dawson College shooting survivor. “It’s always there in the back of my mind.”

That day, then 17-year-old Santos stepped in to help – trying to protect Anastasia and keep the gunman calm. Many hailing him a hero.

“Then he came and placed himself. That’s where I realized that what he was doing was actually going to take place. I pretty much put the pieces together… at that point, I took cover before he actually took his first shot, Anastasia wanted to know why. She got up and got hit by a round. She fell on the ground and I went back to sort of try to comfort her as much as I could,” he explained.

Santos held Anastasia in his arms after the gunman shot her several times with a semi-automatic weapon.

“He was taking aim at students, it was pretty much chaos, lots of screaming, yelling.”

The shooter then pointed his gun at Santos asking him to get up and follow him.

“I was trying to please him as best as I could because I didn’t want to get him angry and hurt other people and he was pretty much using it to know where the police were and what they were doing.”

Santos was used as a human shield. He begged the shooter to let help come for Anastasia.

The shooter then asked how the young woman was doing.

“I told him, I don’t know because I’ve been up with you all this time. He didn’t say anything, he went back. He unloaded his clip on her. So basically, meaning all his ammunition and then he came back and said ‘now I have nothing to worry about’ and he continued on shooting at the police officers on the third floor,” explained Santos.

Soon after, police who had been in the area already on another case intervened.

“With all the gunfire that went, my ears popped, I didn’t hear anything. I just saw him on one knee.”

The shooter was shot in the arm and then took his own life at 12:48 p.m., the shooting spree lasting about 7 minutes.

This was the third fatal school shooting in Montreal, after the Polytechnique massacre in 1989 and the shooting spree at Concordia university in 1992.

Two years later Santos was awarded Canada’s second-highest civilian award for bravery – the star of courage – for keeping the shooter distracted. But he doesn’t see himself as a hero.

“If anything I think the police officers that were there, the first responders, pretty much everybody that were there that were actively doing something. In my mind, I was just being me and trying to survive.”

In the 15 years since, Santos has served in the armed forces and gone through police training. He’s now an officer with the same force that came in to help him that fateful day at Dawson College – the Montreal police.

“What sold me and what I saw how the police officers worked was literally during that ordeal. I saw how they worked as a team, how they’re really for us for students and as society. I really appreciated that and always thought would have liked to give back to the community that gave me another chance.”