Tales of hope and resilience in the aftermath of the Yonge Street van attack

April 23, 2018, was the first truly spring-like day of the year, and Torontonians were enjoying the sunshine. The horror began to unfold shortly after 1 p.m., when Alek Minassian, careening down Yonge Street in a white Ryder van, hopped the sidewalk and mowed down his first victim. 2.2 kilometres later, he’d killed 10 people and shattered hundreds of lives. Yet the outpouring of love, support and courage that followed his savage acts proved to be a powerful antidote. Some reacted out of duty, others by instinct. All of them—the dispatchers who deployed emergency responders, the bystanders who performed CPR, the shopkeepers who opened their doors, the surgeons who worked through the night—did our city proud.

Dispatcher John Shirley oversaw the 911 response

The day started like any other Monday. I was retraining an employee who had just returned from maternity leave. She took one of the first calls about the incident at Yonge and Finch. When people think of 911, they assume callers are always screaming. That’s not the case. Our caller was quite calm. He was across the street from the victim, and he explained everything that was going on, cool and collected. He said that a pedestrian was struck, and that the vehicle continued down the sidewalk.

The incoming-call board instan­taneously lit up in red with calls. We ­determined that this was what we call a mass casualty incident, and I stepped in as the tactical dispatcher responsible for ­co-ordinating resources going to and from the scene. Each shift, we have 20 to 25 dispatch staff on duty.

We train for big events, and I’d dealt with several MCIs, but never one of this magnitude. It was shocking to grasp what was unfolding. I knew there were a lot of people who may be hurt.

Sometimes my job can be overwhelming, but as dispatchers we’re trained to compartmentalize our feelings. We know how to fall back on our training and do what needs to be done in the moment.

The community came together stronger than I thought possible. The paramedics on the road looked after each other. The dispatchers and even community members who weren’t involved in the event itself—they all took care of each other. I was amazed at the outpouring from people across the GTA who just wanted to help, however they could. They say “Toronto the Good” for a reason.

Jessica Lamanna, a shoe store manager, sheltered shell-shocked bystanders

Our store is in a mall, and all of a sudden, security guards came running past. A co-worker and I followed, and a teenager approached us, and said he was crossing the street and the van came right at him. He managed to jump out of the way, but he saw two women get run over. He looked so shaken. We brought him into the store and gave him some money and food, and he used our phone to tell his family he was safe. A co-worker and I took shifts going out to see if people needed help, and more people came in, looking for answers, for a safe place. When I got the full story, I was trying to keep calm, but I was scared. Outside, there were bodies, yellow tape, police officers yelling. The next day, I came in early to bring some daisies to the memorial, and I gave some to my staff. The whole thing was terrifying, but beautiful, too: everyone was coming together to help with the healing.

Tiffany Jefkins, a CPR trainer, co-ordinated the first-aid effort for four victims

I saw it happen. I was holding my daughter and talking to a friend. My initial fear was that the driver was having a medical emergency, but it quickly became apparent that wasn’t so. I happen to teach CPR training for a living, so I buckled my daughter into her stroller, asked my friend to watch her, then started running for the people who got hit.

A man was putting pressure on a victim’s wounds. A bystander helped me roll another victim over, and I started CPR. I coached the other bystander to start chest compressions. Then I realized there were more victims, so I asked if anyone else knew CPR. A couple of people came forward, so I asked them to take over, then ran to a third victim about six metres away. I coached a couple more people to take over because I could see there was a fourth victim. By the time I started on that victim, people were already there and trying to assist in whatever way they could. I encouraged them to start CPR, then went back to the first victim. I kept running back and forth to make sure everyone was okay and answer any questions. The key is to keep offering encouragement—“You’re doing great, you’re making a difference, keep going.”

I used to work in health care, and I’m headed back to school at U of T to study resuscitation research—specifically bystanders who have had to perform CPR, how to help them and what kind of resources they need afterward. My super­visor started something called the Bystander Support Network, which connects people who have gone through a traumatic experience involving cardiac arrest. The main thing is to avoid bottling it up. Relate your experience. It allows you to come to grips with what happened and with how you’ve made a difference.

Roula Massin tried to save the life of a stranger

I was at Mel Lastman Square, which is just north of the TDSB office, where I work in admissions. I heard a bang and then screaming. I’m certified in CPR, so I ran to a woman—a grandmother, as it turns out—and tried to save her. Sadly, I couldn’t. I didn’t give up until the paramedics took over. Afterward, I managed to connect with her grandson, who lives in B.C. We were both crying on the phone, and I told him that I was with her when she died and that I whispered a prayer to her. He was comforted. We agreed to meet in person if he comes to Toronto. We don’t really know each other but, in a way, we do.

Diego DeMatos raced to assist the injured

A friend and I were driving to the GoodLife at Yonge and Finch when we saw a van in the southbound lanes zoom past. The van jumped the sidewalk and hit two people, a man and a woman. The woman flew back into a building, and the man was thrown forward, into the middle of the street. People started screaming. At first, I thought it was a hit and run. Then he hit something else and slowed down. People started running toward him, shouting, “Get that van!” and then he sped away. I could see more bodies on the west side of Yonge. Some of them were moving; some weren’t. Everybody was screaming. It all happened so fast. I pulled over and started CPR on the man in the middle of the street, but, sadly, there was nothing else we could do. A woman nearby handed us her scarf, and we covered his head with it. Then we waited for the police. When they arrived, we backed off and let them do their job. My friend returned to my car, and I started driving north again, and that’s when I realized how far the mayhem stretched. I thought maybe it was seven, eight, nine blocks, but now I know it was so much more. As I was driving, I saw more bodies. There were mailboxes and garbage cans in the middle of the street. A bus shelter was completely shattered. There were shoes everywhere. It was like a scene from a movie, a total war zone.

Danielle Webb showed her daughter what compassion truly means

Traffic was redirected from Yonge, so there was a stream of cars and pedestrians flooding past our house, on Beecroft. People were confused and tired, and it broke my heart. So my father, my daughter and I loaded up a cooler with granola bars, fruit snacks, water and juice boxes. I had made cookies the night before, so we grabbed those, too. We offered them to whoever wanted them. Drivers rolled down their windows and asked for a bottle of water, and cookies for their little ones. One woman asked why she couldn’t get onto Yonge Street, and when we explained what had happened she was just sort of in shock. Some people were crying. Lots of people just said: “Thank you so much.” We had police officers calling out from their cars, asking if they could get some water, and they were so appreciative. Some of the neighbours saw what we were doing and brought us more supplies. My daughter is three years old, and I wanted her to know that when bad things happen, we help.

Café manager Elena-Elizabeth Connolly looked after her staff and customers

I arrived at work just after it happened. There was a body lying right outside the café, uncovered. It was one of our customers. His family somehow found out he had been in and came in asking questions, trying to get us to identify him. They were showing me pictures of him and crying. I just couldn’t do it. It was too overwhelming. One of my employees tried to help them. My staff were shocked, and I closed the store and tried to make sure they were okay. Eventually, I sent everyone home and said, “Be safe.” Phone calls started coming from everywhere. CNN was calling to see if we knew anything. A radio station in New York called to see if we had a camera view or something we could give them. I was in shock, too. I was feeling a lot of different things. The police kept coming in here and checking on us, making sure we knew the hotline number if we needed to call and seeing if the staff were okay. They came in a couple dozen times, which was so nice of them.

Avery Nathens, Sunnybrook’s surgeon-in-chief, managed the medical response

I was in my office when a code orange, which indicates multiple casualty incidents, came over the PA. We’d been practising for this type of scenario over the past year. Our most recent big drill was in October. I changed into my scrubs and went straight to the trauma bay. As I headed there, many things were happening in parallel. I sent a note to the whole staff to find out who was available and whether they could come to the emergency department. The hospital was at 111 per cent capacity at the time, so we also put out a call to neighbouring hospitals to take some in-patients, and we put a stop on all transfer patients.

In the early minutes, my focus was on making sure we had the necessary number of trauma staff. That was tricky because there was a lack of clarity about how many people were hurt. At the same time, I put the operating rooms on hold. We got five patients within about 15 minutes of the code orange. I wanted to ensure that each patient would receive the same care they would receive on a ­typical day. That means a trauma team leader, an anesthetist, nurses, a general surgeon, an ortho­pedic surgeon and a resident all available for each patient. Thankfully, that was possible.

Next, we needed to identify and prioritize patients who required an immediate operation. There just isn’t time to put emergency patients through a CT scan, so you have to rely on experience and perform some simple bedside tests. All told, 10 patients came to us. Two arrived without vital signs. As for the others, six were critical and two were serious.

Frankly, most Canadian hospitals don’t tend to drill like the American hospitals do. I also work at the American College of Surgeons in Chicago, where I’m the medical director of the trauma quality programs. Because of all of the gun violence south of the border, there’s a lot of focus on disaster preparedness. I’ve listened to presentations from the doctors who responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and from the San Antonio team. Clearly, their drills have paid off and made a difference in their ability to respond.

EMS stepped up, and so did our hospital partners. While this was happening, surgeons from around the city contacted me, asking, “How can I help?” and I heard from a number of other trauma centres around the world that had been in similar circumstances and wanted to offer support. It’s pretty powerful to realize you’re part of a much bigger community and, unfortunately, a select club, too.

Assata McKenzie, a fitness instructor, refused to be intimidated

I work at GoodLife and taught two classes that day. It scares me to realize that some of my members would have been leaving the gym and walking down the street right as it happened. Our manager asked us to stay inside because he didn’t want us to see the bodies, and we didn’t know if the perpetrator had been caught yet. Eventually, a co-worker said, “I can’t live in fear” and went out, and I followed her. The street felt eerie. There was no noise, no traffic. You could hear the whirring of the helicopter blades in the sky and, every so often, a siren. Now I’ve heard that women were targeted, and I’m feeling like, fuck. We need to look at mental health issues and social justice issues, including women’s rights. I like the hashtag #­TorontoStrong—it’s a sign of strength.

Mai Gamer comforted an injured woman

My mom works near Yonge and Finch, and we live nearby. I was dropping our car off at my mom’s work so she could take it to her second job. Around 1:25 p.m., I was at Yonge and Churchill, walking toward Finch station. I was with a friend, and we saw a man lying on the sidewalk outside a church. His head was bleeding, and paramedics were looking after him. I thought he had just hit his head. We kept walking north and saw another man lying on the ground, and he had a really big gash in his head. That’s when we realized something bigger was going on. Further north, we saw an elderly woman lying on her side, her walker knocked over. She was talking, asking for help, so we sat with her and comforted her. She was crying, saying, “Please help me, please help me.” People were saying, “They’re coming.” I was scared, thinking, is this still an ongoing thing?—but we wanted to help as much as we could. Everyone around us just dropped what they were doing to help. People from businesses on Yonge Street came out asking if anyone needed water, napkins, anything. I felt scared and angry, but also relieved that I was there to help.

Dan Fox opened up condo common spaces so his neighbours wouldn’t have to grieve alone

I walk to and from work every day along Yonge Street. I was out for a late lunch when it happened. I heard a lot of sirens, opened Twitter to see what was going on and read that a van had struck pedestrians. I looked around, and right outside the place I was headed, a little poké restaurant, there it was. It must have been just seconds after the arrest—the police tape was going up. What if I’d gone to lunch five minutes earlier?

My condo building is my community, but I know that there are a lot of people in these towers who live alone, which is isolating. And when crises happen, people feel the loneliness even more acutely. So when I got home the day after the event, I asked management to open up the common room so there would be a place for people to gather. Residents came, and we ordered pizza and talked. We see each other every day, but there isn’t always time to make a connection. We discussed what had happened, how they heard about it, who they called and what we were feeling. After that, a friend and I began calling other friends who live in condos to see if they were okay. We established an email address—[email protected]—to help connect people with common rooms in other buildings. We’ve experienced a kind of collective trauma, and we need each other.

Peter Bonzelius, a security professional, observed courage in action

I was at Yonge and Finch when I heard the commotion. I saw a person lying on the ground. The van was already gone. Then, seconds later, a cop pulled up, and without looking around or asking any ­questions, he went straight to the victim, without any concern for his own safety, and started doing chest compressions. For all he knew, there was a sniper in the area. But he saw someone in need and responded. We’ll never know his name, but this is a guy who needs to be recognized. The first responders made sense of a chaotic scene and acted quickly. I always knew that they were great, and what I saw only confirmed it.

Safwan Choudhry mobilized a 500-person love-in

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at is one of the largest Muslim communities in Canada, and our national headquarters is north of where the attack took place. We very much consider ourselves part of what binds this city together. As the news was breaking, I started receiving messages from people in our community about what they could do. Nobody had any answers, so a dozen of us decided to go straight to the scene. Around 8 p.m., a few dozen members went to Olive Square Park, and the following day we gathered again, but this time there were close to 500 of us. Many cleared their schedules—cancelled classes, took the day off work—just to come to the vigil. We were all wearing “Love for All, Hatred for None” shirts, or holding signs with the same message. So many people came up to us and said they didn’t know what they could say or do to express how they were feeling, but our message perfectly captured their emotions. Other people asked us if they could hold a sign, even just for a few minutes, so they could do their part. It turned out to be such an incredible coming-together, and it created a wonderful sense of unity. While our motto is a message our community is already familiar with, we were pleased to know that we could play a small part in providing solace to so many people through a simple string of words.

Katherine Liu and Summer Lin, co-owners of Secret Garden, gave away flowers to mourners

Katherine: I didn’t see what happened; we only heard the helicopters and the police cars coming. That’s when we knew that something was going on. The next morning, the road was still closed and we thought maybe we should close the shop—it didn’t feel right to be open given that a tragedy had just taken place. But people were coming in to buy ­flowers for the memorial.

Summer and I talked about what kind of discount we could give—maybe 30 per cent, maybe 50. And then we decided to give all our flowers away for free, because we were so sad, and everyone coming into our shop was really sad, too. We decided we should just put the flowers outside with a sign saying they were free. I think we are all a family, so that’s why I did this. I immigrated to Toronto from China when I was 17 years old. I went to high school and university here—I love Toronto, and I love our customers. What we did is not a big deal. I like to think that anyone who has a flower shop in this area would do the same thing.

Hamid Abdool-Rahman, a translator, heard harmony in the diverse languages of grief

When I went to the memorial to pay my respects, I was amazed to see so many colours, races, complexions. People alone, people with their families and children. People were crying, wailing. Some had put up large sheets of bristol board and scribbled messages. There was Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Persian, English, French, and others I couldn’t even identify. Inside each of us is a desire for goodness, purity and selflessness, an urge to show we are all brothers and sisters. As Canadians, this is who we are. The more we give, the more we find our lives enriched. We all eat three meals a day. Couldn’t we invite a neighbour for one of those meals? We can make Toronto and our neighbourhoods into fields of flowers, of people blossoming up. Let’s trigger the best in us, not the worst.

Eros Tang and his friends played an impromptu concert for mourners

I’m a musician, and I’ve lived at Yonge and Finch for more than 20 years. I found the memorial very moving. People were gathering and showing love for their neighbours, and I wanted to get a group together to play, to make some sense of the loss, and to express our sorrow and our support for the families. The day after the attack, I called friends to see who was available. Three friends, Erick, Elizabeth and Gloria, agreed. People had been laying flowers at Olive Square Park. It was cloudy. We just started playing. It was our first time playing the songs we had selected together. We played to our emotions. We played Vivaldi, the slow movement from the “Spring” concerto; and “Hallelujah,” which I think has a sense of redemption to it. There’s a cry in that song—for hope, for our humanity. As soon as we finished, it started raining.

Christine O’Brien, a spiritual counsellor, helped families work through the trauma

There were five members of our spiritual counselling team at Sunnybrook working that day. As the doctors and nurses were doing their work, we gathered in an auditorium to support the families of the victims. And as patients were identified, we accompanied the family members to be reunited with their loved ones. I put my all into being a compassionate and calming presence for the family members, who were in a high state of emotion. We meet with trauma patients and their families all the time, but this was different because of the nature of the event—it was an intentional act, and the reality of that was shocking. How do you talk about something like that? There was an added intensity. But we did our job the way we always do, and we were present for every person. For them, just waiting was agony. By 8 p.m., I had worked for 14 hours. That’s when two more of our colleagues came in, so I was excused to go home. Part of our training is to recognize when we ourselves need care. Before I went home on Monday, I spoke with my team about my experience, and it was helpful to tell them what I had gone through. I felt so deeply for the people I spent time with. I was physically drained and emotionally spent. And that’s when I was finally able to shed some tears. When I went home, I cried some more. My husband is a former school chaplain, so even without my sharing details, he knew what I’d been through. Simply being held, and being able to cry because it’s safe to cry, is sometimes enough.

Writer Adam Bunch joined a silent army of blood donors

It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of such extreme hate. There’s nothing you can do to undo it, but I kept thinking, how can I make things even a little bit better? Two days later, I decided to go and give blood. Just by myself. It was a very small, easy thing, just a couple of hours. But it felt like something. When I got to the clinic at Bay and College, there were more people than there were chairs. It was amazing. And people kept flowing in, constantly, the whole time. Nobody was talking about why they were there, or mentioning the attack directly, but we all knew.

This story originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.