A fire engine left running and unattended as emergency responders handled a medical call Friday afternoon on Henderson Highway was stolen and taken on a rampage across northeast and central Winnipeg.
City police were called into action around 12:50 p.m., when an off-duty firefighter reported a person in street clothes behind the wheel of the 19-ton truck heading southbound on Henderson Highway.
Dave Minuk was in his vehicle, about to make a U-turn onto Henderson just north of Kimberley Avenue, when he saw the fire engine heading his way with its lights activated. Minuk waited for the truck to pass and turned south onto Henderson.
Near Donalda Avenue, he saw the fire truck hit a black Chevy half-ton that had pulled over to let the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service emergency vehicle pass.
"I was somewhat incredulous at what I had just seen, and even more so when the fire truck continued on without stopping," he said. "When it hit the truck, it forced it into an electrical pole, which was knocked out of the ground.
"Once I recognized that they weren’t stopping, I drove my vehicle past the vehicle that had been hit to check on the guy."
The driver was in shock, Minuk said, but indicated he was OK, and was on the phone with police.
Winnipeg Police Service Const. Rob Carver said multiple units, including tactical support and the police helicopter, began pursuit of the fire engine, which continued south on Henderson and entered the downtown area, reaching speeds up to 50 kilometres an hour.
The driver made his way toward Central Park, where the fire truck jumped the curb onto the field and attempted to hit people in the area, Carver said. No one was hit nor seriously injured.
The chase continued to the area behind Portage Place shopping centre, along Webb Place, where police deployed two spike belts, but were not able to stop the truck as it barrelled south toward Broadway.
After nearly 30 minutes on the road, and with multiple blown tires and plenty of damage, the fire engine finally came to a stop beneath the Midtown Bridge.
Police said an officer used a Taser on the driver in order to take the man into custody.
"I can’t underestimate the threat this would have been," Carver said. "I’m absolutely shocked at not only the minimal property damage, other than obviously to the vehicle itself, but that there is no one seriously injured in this."
The incident is not being treated as a potential terrorist attack, Carver said, but risk to the public was extreme.
"There are limited ways that we can force it off the road," he said. "We didn’t have the armoured vehicle out, so we can’t deploy it in time.
"Given the fact that this was driving through downtown, we were going to start entertaining what we would’ve had to have done to stop this vehicle," Carver said. "While it’s not being viewed as a terrorist threat, we would have had to take steps to stop it as if it might have been a terrorist threat, if it had not stopped."
Fire Chief John Lane said the service is investigating how the engine was able to be commandeered.
"We are horrified at the potential for public injury, public damage, that this represented," Lane said.
He said the entirety of the WFPS crew that arrived with the truck to the Henderson Highway call were inside, dealing with the medical emergency.
"The trucks are generally running, especially in the cold weather," he said. "They’re diesel engine, they have a number of systems that require the truck to continue to run."
United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest said the first responders were away from the truck for about 15 minutes when they realized it had been taken.
"The crew took this very hard. They were very frustrated at what has happened," Forrest said. "But there is also relief that there wasn't any major injuries as well, because this could have been such a tragic incident."
It's standard procedure for the cab of a fire engine to be unlocked while attending to medical calls, Forrest explained.
"We go to medical calls and we have to be able to access our truck. These fire trucks have no ability to lock it up," he said. "The individuals believed they had put all the security safeties in place, and when they came out they were shocked that the vehicle was actually stolen, and it was able to be stolen."
Forrest said he can think of two or three times a fire engine has been stolen in the past, but the driver has never managed to travel more than a few blocks.
"It is a very difficult apparatus to operate because it weighs so much," Forrest said. "It is extremely difficult to drive, especially in the (icy) road conditions we had today, it's very easy to crash the vehicle, and that's one of the amazing things, that there wasn't a major accident that resulted in a serious injury or death."
Updated on Friday, November 29, 2019 at 3:30 PM CST: fixes typo
6:03 PM: Updated
6:56 PM: full write-thru