Former university associate professor George Abdou speaks out about the 1992 shooting
With a gun pointed at his head, George Abdou remained silent for 75 minutes. He was in a room with a man who had already shot several of his colleagues. The smell of blood on the shooter’s hands was pungent. The firearm was no bigger than a toy gun Abdou had bought for his sons.
In court, the shooter was asked why he didn’t kill Abdou. “I didn’t kill him because he was not afraid of death,” the shooter answered.
On Aug. 24, 1992, Valery Fabrikant, an associate professor from Concordia’s engineering department, walked onto the ninth floor of the Hall building and killed professors Aaron Jaan Saber, Matthew Douglass and Michael Hogben and the chair of the electrical and computer-engineering program, Phoivos Ziogas. Hogben and Douglass died on the scene; Ziogas and Saber died a few hours later in hospital.
At the time, Abdou was an associate professor in Concordia’s engineering department. He had only been there for a year, having transferred to Concordia from the University of Windsor. He lived in St-Lazare, outside of Montreal, because it was halfway between Cornwall, Ont.—where his wife worked—and Concordia’s downtown campus. “I loved the place. The kids were happy in St-Lazare. We had a very nice house,” said Abdou in a recent interview with The Concordian. The incident on Aug. 24 ultimately changed everything.
At around 2:30 p.m., while working in his office with a PhD student he was mentoring, Abdou heard gunshots. He told the student to leave and stepped out of his office to find his door scratched and five bullet casings on the floor in front of him. To his right, he saw a secretary, Elizabeth Horwood, bleeding. She had just been shot in the thigh.
“I started to comfort her and, at the same time, she was screaming, ‘Where is the other secretary?’ So we entered the chair office,” said Abdou. By the time Fabrikant returned, Horwood and another secretary had fled. “Then he simply pointed at me [and told me] not to move and pointed the gun at my head for 80… about 75 to 80 minutes,” recounted the former Concordia professor.
Abdou stood beside Fabrikant in the room, looking into his eyes and watching his finger on the trigger. The perpetrator of the attack—a Belarus-born émigré—was talking on the phone with authorities, who were trying to calm him down. “You didn’t kill anyone,” the police told him. “Things are going to be better than you think.”
Abdou’s mind was racing. Not only was he worried for his life, he was also anxious about the well-being of his two sons. Abdou had left his sons, aged four and six, along with the son of a visiting professor, with a new babysitter. “She told me, ‘By 4 p.m., if you don’t come, I’m going to leave them in the street,’” Abdou remembered.
He looked at the clock. It was 4:15 p.m. “What are the three going to do in the street?” he thought. None of his friends knew where the babysitter lived, and he wasn’t able to reach anyone anyway.
“In the meantime, I had a feeling of guilt. If I did anything wrong and [Fabrikant] dies because of this, I’m going to [be] the killer now,” Abdou told The Concordian.
Swat teams arrived at the office and stood by the door. As Fabrikant was taking his finger off the trigger to give the phone to security guard Daniel Martin, who was also in the room, Abdou kicked the gun away from the assailant’s hands with his left foot.
“I ran toward that gun and I lay down on it,” Abdou said. “When I looked back, the security guard dropped the phone and he went and held [Fabrikant]’s arms. I went back to him and I was kind of hysteric, asking ‘Why are you doing all of this?’ The security guard was screaming ‘Open the door.’”
In response to Martin’s shouts, Abdou exited the room, awkwardly holding the shooter’s gun. He immediately realized the authorities had confused him with Fabrikant. He threw himself and the gun on the ground and was handcuffed by police. It was only after subduing Abdou that police realized their mistake.
Abdou was driven to the police station where he wrote his own official statement because the arresting officer didn’t speak English and couldn’t transcribe his statement correctly. The professor was eventually able to get a ride from the station to the babysitter’s home, where he found the three children safe.
That night, a Monday, friends came to see him. “Everyone was interested in the story, but I couldn’t take it,” Abdou said. At 8 p.m., less than five hours after the shooting, Abdou collapsed. “I woke up the next day. I cried a lot,” Abdou said, pausing intermittently.
Fabrikant’s trial spanned a year. Abdou was the last witness to testify. Throughout the ordeal, Abdou’s eldest son was the most affected. “I was trying to hide the event,” the professor explained. “But apparently he went to school [and] they were bringing him the newspapers, so he was aware.” To get a fresh start, the family eventually moved to New Jersey.
In April 1993, Abdou got a call from the dean of NJIT asking him to come in for an interview. When he finally responded in June, the dean told him: “I don’t want to know when you are coming, I want to know if you’re coming, yes or no.” Three months later, Abdou visited NJIT’s Newark campus for the first time with his wife and met the dean.
Abdou had requested a tenure position, money to buy equipment for a seminar and a desired salary. When he arrived on campus to discuss these requests, the dean was on the phone in his office but was pointing to an envelope on the table. “After he finished the call, he said, ‘This is your first cheque, we didn’t know where to send it,’” Abdou recounted, laughing.
The former Concordia professor has been at NJIT ever since. He is now the associate chair of the industrial and manufacturing engineering department.
Despite having a difficult childhood at times, Abdou said his two sons have been very successful.
“They both finished [school], they’re both physicians. I’m so proud of them.”
Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth