Nine people dead, at least 16 injured after van hits pedestrians in north Toronto

Nine people dead, at least 16 injured after van hits pedestrians in north Toronto

23/04/18 - 14:53 - Nine people are dead, and sixteen more are injured, after a rental van mowed down pedestrians for close to three kilometers in north Toronto Monday afternoon.

Emergency crews received a number of frantic calls around 1:30 p.m., after a white rental van mounted the sidewalk at the busy Yonge Street and Finch Avenue East intersection and struck a number of people.

From there, the van – bearing a Ryder Truck Rental and Leasing logo – fled southbound on Yonge for several blocks toward Shephard Avenue West, hitting more people before coming to a stop on Poyntz Avenue.

There, an eyewitness video shows the driver – standing next to the damaged van – pointing his hands at a police officer.

“Kill me,” he yells, repeatedly gesturing his hand from his back pocket toward the officer.

“No. Get down,” the lone officer calls back. Eventually, the man drops the object on the pavement and obeys the officer’s orders to get on the ground. He was taken into custody.

Toronto Police Deputy Chief Peter Yeun stressed at a press conference Monday evening that “all available resources have been brought in to address this tragic situation.”

He said police will be setting up two hotlines; one for victims’ families, and one for witnesses.

“This is going to be a complex investigation,” he said.

Michele Kelman, who works at an IT company with an office on Yonge St., said she was walking back to work after lunch with a friend when they heard screams behind them.

My friend was gone. I couldn’t find her body for a while. There were a few around. And there were people trying to bring her back.

— Eye witness

Ms. Kelman said she turned and saw objects and bodies flying through the air and the front end of a white van heading straight down the sidewalk toward her.

She turned instinctively, trying to shield herself, and the truck rushed past without touching her.

When she turned back she saw only carnage. “My friend was gone,” she said. “I couldn’t find her body for a while. There were a few around. And there were people trying to bring her back.”

Ms. Kelman said her friend did not survive. She declined to identify her because her family hasn’t yet been notified.

“I thought maybe she was still alive. I thought maybe she ran,” Ms. Kelman said. “There were bodies all over,” she said, her eyes red, her hands still shaky.

Saman Tabasinejad was walking along Yonge, just south of Finch – the same block where she lives – when she stumbled across the immediate aftermath.

“I saw body bags. I just saw one after the other, after the other. At least five,” she said Monday afternoon.

Right next to the orange body bags were the victim’s shoes. “That was what got me,” she said. “People’s shoes were placed directly outside of the body bags.”

Ms. Tabasinejad, who is running as the Ontario NDP candidate in the provincial riding, had been canvassing the area all morning – including the very intersections where people were later hit. The sidewalks had been full of families and people out enjoying the sunny weather after a long winter.

“It’s terrifying. These are my neighbours,” she said. The neighbourhood is notable for its dense concentration of newcomers – mainly Chinese, Korean and Iranian families, many who own and run the businesses nearby. “This neighbourhood is all immigrants, essentially,” she said. “I just love this neighbourhood so much.”

Aerial footage from the scene showed multiple victims on the sidewalk covered with orange tarps, as police taped off the surrounding blocks. The area resonated with the sound of fire-truck and ambulance sirens and the thuds of rotors of helicopters flying overheard, as police spoke with witnesses.

John Flengas, acting superintendent for EMS Toronto, said that multiple people died on scene but that “the numbers are just starting to come in.”

He called the scene “unprecedented.”

The first call to first responders was vague, he said, and didn’t prepare them for the scene they would arrive on.

“Basically from Yonge and Finch all the way down to Yonge and Shepherd, it was pure carnage. Debris everywhere. [I] can’t really describe it. Victims everywhere,” he told reporters outside the hospital.

He said that there were already casualties when first responders arrived on scene.

“Multiple people were injured. Multiple people were deceased,” he said.

Amir Farokhpour was steps away when one of the victims was hit Monday. He had just walked out of the furniture store where he works, heading for lunch, when he “heard a bang.”

He looked up to see a southbound van veering wildly in the northbound lanes. In its wake was a middle-aged man, his head covered in blood. The driver appeared to be aiming for two women on the sidewalk, he said, but didn’t mount the curb and swerved back across the road and continued south.

“We tried helping the guy, but he was dead right away,” Mr. Farokhpour said. As he told the story the victim lay nearby under a tarp, with shoes, a pair of glasses and some debris from a vehicle more than 10 metres away.

Another witness to that death said he was driving south when he spotted a man crossing the six-lane road on foot, from west to east. Suddenly a van swerved in front of his vehicle.

“[The van was] probably going 80, 90, 100 [km/h]. He accelerated at the guy,” said Dainis Covers, a cook at a nearby eatery. “The [driver] just went straight at him. The guy flew up. Probably higher than the van.”

Another witness said he saw the van a few blocks farther south. Andy Jibb, a web designer who works from his home 27 storeys above Yonge, heard crashes and screaming.

He raced out onto the balcony and saw “five or six” people lying on the sidewalk. “Three of them weren’t moving at all,” he said

As Mr. Jibb watched, the van proceeded south down the sidewalk as people scrambled out of the way before disappearing from view.

“I saw people chasing the van and people rushing to the people on the ground,” he said.

The area was chaotic, as dozens of police cruisers and ambulances flooded the area. An EMS bus was brought in to treat patients.

A total of 10 victims had been rushed to Sunnybrook as of 4:30 p.m. At least two had been pronounced dead after they arrived without vital signs, a spokesman for the hospital said. Of the survivors, five are in critical condition, two in serious condition and one in fair condition.

The hospital has locked down its emergency department “as an added precaution” and has activated its emergency operations centre.

Staff was meeting Monday afternoon to make sure there are enough beds available for the injured. Traffic is being “controlled” outside the hospital’s main campus on Bayview Avenue.

The scene was “organized chaos,” said Dr. Dan Cass, Chief Medical Executive for the hospital, as hospital staff worked to handle the sudden influx of victims. He said staff was still in the process of contacting victims’ families.

“The circumstances here are certainly unprecedented,” he said.

Sunnybrook is telling members of the public who fear their friends or relatives were injured in the crash to call the hospital’s support centre at 416-480-4940.

Patients were also transported to other hospitals.

Word of the incident came just as Mayor John Tory was speaking to a business luncheon in Scarborough.

“There has been in the Yonge and Finch area a very tragic episode that’s occurred involving a number of pedestrians and a vehicle,” Mr. Tory said, just minutes after the first reports came in.

“I won’t speculate this moment in time how many people have been directly affected but it’s multiple people ... I will just say at the outset that of course our prayers and our thoughts are with the people that have been affected by this, the pedestrians in particular. And with our emergency responders ...At the moment we have no knowledge of exactly how this came about or what lay behind it.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told MPs in the House of Commons Monday afternoon that he had little information about the incident: “Our thoughts are obviously with those affected by this incident. We’re still gathering information and as soon as we can we will share more information with Canadians.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne told reporters Monday afternoon that all levels of government and police are working together.

Police have not released any information about a potential cause of the crash.

In Ontario, potential acts of terrorism are investigated by RCMP-led national-security squads. “At this point we are still gathering information on the incident and once we have the ability to do a press release we will do so,” RCMP said Inspector Don Halina, of the Ontario Integrated National Security Enforcement Team. ​

Toronto Police remain the lead investigating agency in the incident, but the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police are assisting, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters Monday.

“The very nature of the event that has taken [place] has not been completely defined at this moment,” Mr. Goodale said.

The G7 foreign affairs and security ministers are meeting nearby at the University of Toronto and Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Speaking to media, Mr. Goodale said he could not speculate on the motive of the incident as the investigation was ongoing, but said he had no information to suggest that it was linked to the G7 summit. He also refused to speculate on the number of casualties.

“There are obviously casualties in this incident. I cannot provide details at this stage but I do want to extend thoughts and prayers to those who have suffered as a result of what has happened,” Mr. Goodale said.

He said the Toronto Police are leading the investigation, with the full cooperation of the Ontario Provincial Police and RCMP. He said there was no information at the time to suggest the government needs to change the national terrorism threat level. He said he spoke with his Ontario counterpart Monday afternoon and planned to speak with Mr. Tory later.

Canada has had other recent attacks involving vehicles.

Last September in Edmonton, an assailant stabbed a police officer and struck four others in a rental van outside a football game. No one died. Abdulahi Hasan Sharif, 30, has been found fit to stand trial on 11 charges including attempted murder.

In October 2014, Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25, drove into two Canadian soldiers. Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent died and the attacker was killed by police a few minutes later.

The deadliest vehicle-ramming attacks have taken place in the United States and Europe since Al Qaeda’s 2006 call for Western recruits to use trucks as weapons, and after ISIS renewed the call in 2014 for lone wolves to improvise weaponry.

On July 14, 2016, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, drove a truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, killing 81. Since 2015, other vehicle attacks in Berlin, London, New York, Stockholm, Barcelona and Ohio have killed dozens more.

The rental company extended its condolences to victims and said it is co-operating with police.

“We are saddened by this tragic event, and our deepest sympathies go out to those impacted. We take the safety and security related to the use of our entire fleet very seriously and we are cooperating fully with authorities,” Claudia Panfil, spokeswoman for Miami-based Ryder System, Inc., said by e-mail Monday.