Randall McConnell, 41, sat in the kitchen of his Ottawa townhouse with his old friend Mario Gauthier, 38. It was a cold February afternoon in 2005, and the two were catching up over a cup of coffee. McConnell was happy for a visit: He had spent the morning in hospital having one of a seemingly endless series of medical treatments. Talking with Gauthier, who dropped in to see him every few weeks, always lifted his spirits.
McConnell was a very sick man. He suffered from Castleman's disease, a rare and devastating disorder that had put him in hospital for three long years at the age of 30, and forced him, at 33, to retire permanently from his job doing cement work.
So far, he had endured 16 operations, 49 radiation treatments and a half-dozen rounds of chemotherapy. He also had developed spinal meningitis, which had left him unable to walk for much of the previous year. Although he had gotten back on his feet over the winter, he used a walker outside his home.
It was around 4 pm and the light outside was fading fast. McConnell planned to take a nap after his friend left. But, as he had already learned in life, plans change.
"They're eating him! They're biting him!" McConnell's girlfriend, Dawn Vanderburg, suddenly screamed from a room at the back of their house. Then she started to sob. McConnell leaped from his chair and ran to where she stood looking out into their backyard. A man lay on the ground, pushed up against the fence that separated their property from the neighbourhood park. The man flailed his limbs wildly as three large pit-bull-like dogs lunged at him, snapping at his arms, legs and face. Streaks of blood fanned out in the snow around him.
McConnell recognised the dogs. They belonged to a man who had just moved in a few houses away. He kept the dogs in his backyard and had told McConnell that he had trained them to be particularly vicious "for protection." Until now, McConnell had never seen the dogs outside their fenced yard.
Somehow - to this day, he can't explain how - McConnell summoned the strength to run outside. In bare feet and clad only in an undershirt and dress pants, he tore through his yard towards the back gate. As he got there, McConnell recognised the man on the ground: It was his neighbour Guy Clairoux. He didn't know Clairoux well, but he'd seen him in the park with his kids.
McConnell realised Gauthier had followed him outside. "Mario," he yelled, "we're in for a world of hurt."
Just a few minutes earlier, Clairoux, 39, had been trudging along the edge of the park after picking up his three sons from daycare. The park was surrounded by townhouses, one of which was his, and had a large, open field and a small playground. A dozen children were making snowballs in the field, and his boys - Jayden, almost three, and four-year-old twins Brayden and Brendon - wanted to play, too.
In their backyard, Clairoux walked ahead to drop their knapsacks at the back door of the house. As he got close, JoAnn Hartley, his girlfriend at the time and the boys' mother, opened the door and screamed, "Guy, those dogs are going to jump the fence!" Clairoux whirled around to see Jayden standing alone, about six metres from the metre-high backyard fence. Three large dogs - one dark brown and two lighter in colour - paced on the other side, eyeing the little boy.
Just as Clairoux started running for his son, the largest dog leaped over the fence. With its jaws grabbing the side of Jayden's head, the dog shook the boy, puncturing his cheek. Clairoux charged the dog and started punching it in the side of the face until, finally, it recoiled. Seeing that the other two dogs also had cleared the fence, Clairoux picked up Jayden and lifted him high above his head. The three dogs jumped up on Clairoux, their front legs pounding at Jayden's snow pants. They were snarling fiercely.
Hartley had come running, too, and Clairoux tossed Jayden to her. She threw her son to the ground, then shielded him with her body. "JoAnn! Cover your neck! Cover your neck!" Clairoux yelled, straddling Hartley and Jayden.
For two long minutes, Clairoux kept catching the dogs as they lunged, then throwing them to the ground or pushing their faces into the snow. The sight of teeth coming at him and the sounds of snapping and growling terrified him. "I'm scared, JoAnn," he said. "These dogs want to kill me."
Finally, Hartley managed to scramble away and run for home with Jayden in her arms. Blood covered the toddler's face, and his snow pants hung in ribbons. Clairoux tried running, too, but he hadn't gone far when one of the dogs knocked him over and he fell down against a neighbour's fence. The largest dog leaped on him and bit his hand while the other two pulled at his legs. Exhausted, it was all he could do to protect his face with his fists and continue kicking. He kept thinking, Isn't anyone going to help me?
Then he saw McConnell running towards him.
McConnell hurled himself at the dog on top of Clairoux, kicking and punching, then retreated into his backyard. Two of the dogs followed. He tried to hit them in vulnerable areas: behind the ears, between the legs, in the stomach. Sometimes his punches hit home, and the dogs would howl with pain.
In McConnell's yard, Gauthier started kicking and punching one of the beasts, and it turned on him. Meanwhile, with only one dog left to deal with, Clairoux got to his feet and redoubled his efforts. The dog jumped high, teeth snapping, trying to get into a good position to lock on.
With three men and three dogs, the fight was balanced, at least. The men punched, kicked, yelled and screamed profanities. Around the park, people gathered in their backyards, watching the confrontation and placing multiple calls to 911. The spectators' screams mixed with the dogs' snarls.
A teenage neighbour grabbed a hockey stick from his yard and threw it over the fence to the men. Gauthier plucked it from the air and cracked it down on the face of the dog in front of him. The impact broke off the blade from the hockey stick, and the dog leaped away, yelping. Gauthier thought he had broken the animal's jaw, but the dog attacked again. He smashed the stick down a second time, and another piece broke off. He rammed the stick down, yet again, and was left holding a section of wood less than a metre long. Then he grabbed the piece at both ends and began cross-checking the dog in the face. The animal came back relentlessly.
With Gauthier swinging the hockey stick right in front of him, McConnell briefly lost his focus. That was the opportunity the dog he was fighting needed. The animal sank its teeth into his upper arm and hung on, even after McConnell fell.
Then, about seven minutes after it had begun, the attack ended: Alerted to what was happening, the animals' owner arrived and called them off. With dogs in tow, he calmly walked home as Clairoux and Gauthier collapsed beside McConnell in the snow.
The attack left several injuries. A ten-centimetre gash on McConnell's arm was the most serious and required reconstructive surgery. And the dogs left deep puncture wounds in one of McConnell's feet, in Jayden's cheek and in Clairoux's hand.
These three also had scrapes, cuts and bruises, and they went to the hospital for treatment. Still, the adults felt lucky - without their joint effort, the injuries could have been much worse.
McConnell, Clairoux and Hartley have been honoured with a variety of awards. And McConnell also received a medal and a cash award from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission in recognition of his bravery in initiating a rescue in which he risked his life to help someone he barely knew. "If I'd had time to sit back and think about it, I would still have done it. It's respect for life," McConnell says.
McConnell recalls how another young boy had changed his outlook on life. When first diagnosed with Castleman's disease and forced to spend three years in hospital, he says, he complained a lot and felt sorry for himself. But then he met a young cancer patient named Daniel. No matter how sick Daniel was, the boy was always smiling and happy. Inspired, McConnell vowed to adopt a more positive attitude. "The recognition is nice, and I'm proud. But we didn't do it for that," says
McConnell of the rescue.
"Maybe we all have something to do in life, a purpose," he adds. "Maybe that was mine."