Inside the hockey riot: The terrifying destruction of downtown Vancouver

VANCOUVER – Thick black smoke darkens the sky, billowing from overturned vehicles lit on fire by what started as a small crowd and gained fury over the course of hours, the way a tropical storm becomes a hurricane.

The streets are littered with shattered glass and torn and trampled reminders of the hockey game that just a few hours before had exuberant crowds chanting for a Stanley Cup win.

The windows of The Bay’s flagship store on Granville Street have been smashed out, and designer purses looted from street-level displays. Sears will be next, along with Chapters, Future Shop and likely several other stores belonging to owners that believed Vancouver had “grown up” since the Stanley Cup riot of 1994, and chose not to board up their windows.

Wooden pallets are being chucked on the flames of overturned vehicles on the street near The Bay, and the fire appears to have spread to the buildings. Soon, a half dozen fires will be burning on the street, and firefighters will be unable to douse them because it is too dangerous for them to enter the riot zone.

Fighting breaks out among the crowd and I run as four bloodied combatants close in on me, punching and kicking each other onto the shattered glass on the ground below.

But running away is not so easy.

For every drunk kicking at a window or jumping on an overturned car, there are 100 spectators decrying the violence in between snapping cellphone photos and tweeting about the scene unfolding in front of them. The crowd is overwhelming and chaos reigns.

Police are nowhere to be seen in the eye of this storm, but have set up a line blocks away where they are pelted with bottles from a breakaway crowd.

It will be hours before riot squads seem to amass in enough numbers to try and take back the streets. The crowd control officers and mounted police are so vastly outnumbered, that when the violence broke out, they had to pull back and regroup.

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Outside The Bay, the crowd cheers when another window is broken. Some try to intervene to stop destruction, but it’s only temporary. As the crowd ebbs and flows through the downtown core, it takes only a few short steps to find another target and a more supportive crowd.

Shoes are being tossed from smashed store windows as the crowd moves, and teen girls steal MAC makeup as other people hold pieces of mannequin. In quieter areas, shopkeepers stand outside their buildings looking frightened.

A few blocks from the epicentre, a young man lays in the street, unconscious with his head bleeding as his friends, who appear to be drunk, smack his face and ask him if he’s okay. They quickly turn angry on a reporter with a camera.

Many of the faces are now covered with bandanas.

The crowd-control escalates—not nearly as quickly as the violence, but police ramp up their response as darkness falls.

First, a warning delivered via megaphone:

“Attention, attention, this is the Vancouver police.

“This is an unlawful assembly, you must leave the area.”

“We will deploy our canine unit if you do not leave. Please do not stay here, you must leave.”

Given the events that unfolded in 1994, we had hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. Perhaps it should have come as no surprise that drunk young “hockey fans” would unleash such destruction.

What is more surprising to me are the thousands who don’t appear to be drunk, who are standing back laughing and taking photos and seem thoroughly convinced that they are not part of the problem.

Later, under a full moon, hundreds of people dance on the streets of the Vancouver Art Gallery, across the street from the looted Chapters. They are smiling, a beat box is blasting and people say they are trying to contrast the ugly mess on the streets nearby.