October 26, 2014 / 3:33 PM / 3 years ago

In wake of Canada attacks, Toronto police drill for disaster

Police officers wearing gas masks stand in the financial district during a mock "crisis response" exercise in Toronto, October 26, 2014.Mark Blinch

TORONTO (Reuters) - About 100 police, firefighters and other emergency workers held a disaster-response drill in downtown Toronto's deserted financial district on Sunday following a week that saw two soldiers killed on Canadian soil.

Security in normally relaxed Canada has been tighter in the days since a gunman shot dead a soldier in Ottawa before charging into the parliament building and another man ran over two soldiers with a car, killing one, outside Montreal.

Toronto emergency responders donned oxygen tanks and yellow full-body hazardous material suits shortly after dawn, set up decontamination tents and practiced how they would respond in an office tower that had received a suspicious package.

The drill had long been planned and was not a reaction to the twin attacks that police said had been carried out by men they described as home-grown radicals, officials said.

Some acknowledged that it took on a more urgent tone in the wake of those incidents.

"We had to be very specific with our strategic briefing after what happened in Ottawa," said Daniel Martin, a staff sergeant with the Toronto Police Department, as fireman ran hoses across a plaza outside an office tower across the street from the Toronto Stock Exchange.

The attacks, which police said were the work of Canadian citizens who were recent converts to Islam, came during a week that the nation sent additional jet fighters to the Middle East to take part in air strikes against Islamic State militants.

Canadian officials vowed to keep up their involvement in the military campaign despite the attacks and planned to reopen the parliament building to the public on Monday, though they said they would begin locking the doors overnight.

SAUDI ARABIA, NOT SYRIA

The mother of the gunman, 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, denied in a letter to the Canadian news agency Postmedia a statement by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that she told them her son, had intended to travel to Syria, a hotbed of militant activity.

Her son, who came to Ottawa from Vancouver seeking a passport, had wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia to study the Koran, Susan Bibeau said in the letter.

The nation also prepared for a pair of funerals, with the Ottawa victim, 24-year-old Corporal Nathan Cirillio to be laid to rest in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, on Tuesday, and a funeral for 53-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent set for Saturday in Quebec.

Both attackers, Zehaf-Bibeau and 25-year-old Martin Rouleau, were shot and killed by police.

In the downtown Toronto drill, college students wearing yellow baseball caps played the role of workers in the building that received the suspicious package, an exercise Deputy Police Chief Mark Saunders said had been planned for over a year.

"We prepare for any crisis that's put before us and when we have these real-time type of training scenarios, it makes us better at responding," Saunders said.

Truck driver Kevin Wittet, 49, who had driven to the city with his two children to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame, emerged from an underground parking garage into the midst of the exercise.

"It makes me feel better, but do I think that they can stop it? Absolutely not," said Wittet, after police escorted him away from the scene.

"When you're dealing with people who are willing to walk into a crowd with a bomb underneath their coat and blow themselves up, there's no way that they're going to be able to prevent it," he said.

Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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