April 23, 2019 8:00 am
Updated: April 25, 2019 4:36 pm

Looking back at the Toronto van attack: How 7 minutes changed the city

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At the noon hour on April 23, 2018, residents in Toronto were basking in sunny skies and a comfortable 16 C. The top story of the day at that point? Joyous news out of England as the Royal Family announced the birth of Prince Louis, son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

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For Tanya Kolenko, a five-year security guard who works at the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) Yonge Street headquarters, it was also shaping up to be a wonderful day. She and her fiancee were planning to shop for wedding rings after her shift ended at 3 p.m.

“It happened to be a good day for the weather. People were out and about eating their lunches and enjoying a chat with colleagues they haven’t seen since before the winter,” Kolenko recalled in a recent interview with Global News.

READ MORE: These are the victims of the Toronto van attack

“I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Wow, it’s a beautiful spring day.’ But it turned out to be the exact opposite.”

At the tail end of the lunch period, a seemingly pleasant day in the Willowdale neighbourhood turned into a bitter hell for 26 victims, their families and friends, and profoundly affected many in Canada’s most populous city — all over the course of seven minutes.

Ten people were killed and 16 were injured after Toronto police said Alek Minassian rented a van and drove it to the Yonge Street and Finch Avenue area. Police said the accused drove south on Yonge Street “striking pedestrians on the sidewalk and the roadway with the vehicle.”

1:27 p.m.: First call received to 911

Toronto police said the 911 communications centre received the first call for help at 1:27 p.m.

“We had taken one of the first calls that day for that event. It didn’t take us long to realize that it was much more than just one pedestrian struck … I could see and hear other dispatchers other call takers taking the same call for four different areas just south of the actual incident,” John Shirley, an advanced emergency medical dispatcher with Toronto Paramedic Services, recently told Global News.

“My priority that day was to help as many people as I could. It didn’t take us long to realize that there are a lot of people critically injured and a lot of people with just your basic injuries of that type of incident.”

READ MORE: Toronto paramedics who responded to van attack reflect

Shirley, who also works as a communications training officer, said he and communications team quickly set up a tactical desk to coordinate response efforts for Toronto paramedics and those from neighbouring services. He said he is used to busy days, noting the centre can receive almost 1,000 calls a day, but the volume of calls helped make this an “unprecedented” event.

To this day, Shirley said he can still remember specific calls related to the attack, the wide range of injuries, and how the scene was described.

“I could hear the tones of what the paramedics were trying to voice over, stuff like that. It’s more of what you hear. You tend to leave that up to your imagination as to what the scene looks like without actually being there,” he said.

READ MORE: Eyewitnesses describe panic as van hits Toronto pedestrians

“The level of devastation for this call when it first came in, I think that’s what shocked a lot of our staff. We had a lot of critically hurt people right off the bat. So it’s how do we get to these people in a very quick manner given this incident in particular?”

In addition to processing calls from those at the scene, Shirley said he recalled how call takers needed to provide CPR instructions and walk people through how to assess wounds.

“I’m proud of our team. I’m proud of the citizens that were in that area that day. They went above and beyond as well to provide any level of first aid that was needed. Everyone did their very best that day,” he said.

1:34 p.m.: Suspect arrested by police as first responders, Good Samaritans try to help

After travelling more than two kilometres, Toronto police said Minassian pulled over on Poyntz Avenue, southwest of Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue West. He was arrested moments later by Const. Ken Lam, who was praised for trying to de-escalate the situation and for not using a weapon. Lam could be heard on video giving direct commands to get down on the ground and rejecting calls from Minassian to shoot him.

While the arrest happened, there were dozens of Good Samaritans who rushed to help as emergency services crews responded.

Kolenko, who was stationed at the TDSB’s security desk, said she still thinks of the tragedy daily, recalling how she grabbed an automated external defibrillator (AED).

READ MORE: Toronto officer praised for arrest of van attack suspect doesn’t want to be called a hero, deputy chief says

“I figured out something was definitely wrong when I heard screams,” she said. “Just sheer horror. I’ve never heard anything like that to that extent.

“I put [the AED], with one of my co-workers, on a lady that was a victim. And we did try our best to resuscitate her and a few others that needed our help.”

Kolenko noted she had to grab her co-worker’s wrist in order to move on a triage victim.

READ MORE: ‘Heartwarming’ cartoon honours victims of Toronto van attack, Humboldt Broncos tragedy

“You didn’t know where to go to at first, but things were just happening all so fast. But you had to take a step back and evaluate the scene to make sure that you could help and assist anybody that really needed it,” she said, adding she hasn’t met any of the people she helped that day

It wasn’t until she got home after being dropped off by manager that Kolenko said she felt safe.

“And there Peter was waiting for for me. He was obviously very concerned and it affected everybody, not just what happened to my little corner of the world but what happened to everybody that has been in this situation that’s been affected,” she said.

READ MORE: ‘This changes everything’ — residents react to Toronto van attack

Meanwhile, at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, surgeon Dr. Fred Brenneman was one of medical team members on call. He was almost midway through his shift at the hospital when a code orange (the code used to indicate there has been a disaster) was paged. At first, Brenneman said there was a lot of uncertainty at first.

“I needed to figure out if this was a drill or the real thing and I realized that it was the real thing because there was no indication that it wasn’t, so I just went to the emergency department,” he said.

“We got information as to what was coming. The number was uncertain, but we knew that it was going to be more than our one trauma team can could manage and so we called out for for more help.”

READ MORE: How hospitals respond to mass casualties like Toronto’s van attack

Sunnybrook received 10 victims in total. Two people were pronounced dead after arriving, five were in critical condition and three were in serious condition.

Brenneman said the Yonge Street tragedy meant this was the worst incident in the hospital’s history in terms of the high number of victims coming in at one time. He said the on-duty staff created three trauma teams (each consisting of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapist, x-ray technician, staff from the blood bank, etc.) to “divide and conquer.”

“There weren’t any surprise injuries; we deal with these types of patients every single day. The unique situation here was the number, so the number overwhelmed our ability to look after all of them in the same way without making a lot of adjustments and those adjustments meant opening up the operating room stopping other surgery opening up the ICUs,” he said.

READ MORE: Chaplains at Toronto hospital describe aftermath of van attack

“I must say the GTA hospitals cooperated tremendously because they were able to accept and transfer some of our ICU patients who were stable. They didn’t need to be here so much they could have been at another hospital, and so they would take those patients that opened up our ICU to look after these code orange patients.

“[This is] something that you can practice for. We had practiced for this before, we’ve done a lot of practicing since, but until you actually hit the day and the occurrence you don’t really know how things are going to go until you are put in that spot. So I’m very proud of our team.”

2:30 p.m.: ‘It was a horrifying thing and it was moving’

Mayor John Tory said he first learned of the incident very shortly after it happened from his communications director while leaving a speech to the Scarborough Business Association.

“Is this a terrorist act? Is it somebody acting by himself or herself?” he recalled considering after being told what happened.

“Maybe it was a medical thing? Like in our city, I think we’ve been so blessed with a peaceful place where these kinds of things don’t happen that your mind turns to everything except the worst nightmare scenario at first.”

READ MORE: Victim Services Toronto working to support those impacted by van attack

Tory said he got to the scene approximately an hour after the attack happened, arriving at the North York Civic Centre.

“To walk through Mel Lastman Square and have it absolutely deserted except for the odd emergency services person, to then to get to Yonge Street and it’s deserted. There isn’t a car moving — nothing is happening — but there are emergency services personnel that are around bodies that are still lying on the ground, covered,” he said.

“It was a horrifying thing and it was moving. I mean the silence, the eerie silence of Yonge Street with the bodies there.”

Inside the boardroom of a Scotiabank across the square were representatives from Toronto’s emergency services, all trying to coordinate their responses on scene. Tory praised them for methodically assessing what happened.

READ MORE: Therapy dogs visit site of Toronto van attack to ‘give unconditional love’

“They had a driver’s licence and they’d made an arrest by that time. They knew who the suspect was and then they had had to turn their minds to questions like, ‘Well, OK, we know his address. What if there was something else that was involving other people or that he’d loaded his house with explosives before he left to do this?” he recalled.

READ MORE: Toronto resident recounts helping injured man after van attack: ‘He was in bad shape’

“Who is going to tell the York Regional Police that they have to go to the house? Who’s going to make sure the neighbours know? And they were just going through an entire exhaustive checklist as well as dealing with the questions of what was going to happen with the injured people and of course with the fatalities that had occurred.”

Tory said he felt a responsibility to be at the scene because as mayor, he’s responsible for each of the municipal emergency services. But he also said he wanted to ensure information got out in a timely way — the main thing raised during his time in the command centre.

“Thousands of people live there, thousands of people work there, and of course then you had the rest of the population of the city of Toronto who might have been very worried about what was going on, what did this mean,” he said.

4:45 p.m.: Officials provide first update on attack, death toll

Deputy Toronto police chief Peter Yuen, who was acting chief while Mark Saunders was in New York City, addressed the media along with Tory for the first time after the attack happened. Chief Saunders made his way back to the city after learning of the tragedy.

“The driver is in custody right now and he’s being investigated to the events that took place this afternoon,” he said, while giving his condolences to the families of the victims.

“We can confirm for you tonight, right now, we have nine people that are dead, 16 that are injured. [The] Toronto Police Service has mobilized all available resources and I can assure the public that all our available resources have been brought in to address this tragic situation and to investigate this situation.”

READ MORE: Alek Minassian suspected driver in Toronto van attack that killed 10, injured 14

Yuen said hotlines were set up for victims and their families as well as for witnesses. He said residents could expect to see officers on the scene for several days.

“This is going to be a long investigation with multiple witnesses. We have a lot of surveillance cameras,” he said.

“There were a lot of pedestrians out enjoying, a lot of witnesses enjoying the sunny afternoon.”

8:25 p.m.: A show of unity as suspect identified

Then-premier Kathleen Wynne was at Queen’s Park in meetings and was first told about what happened after a staff member saw the scene on television. This came moments before bureaucrats called. Wynne said her first inclination was to go to the scene, but weighed it against the possibility of detracting from the work of first responders.

After a period of time, Wynne made her way to the scene and arrived after the first media update. Like Tory, she said the silence along Yonge Street is what first struck her.

“It’s a very busy vibrant part of the city and it was completely still. So it was like it was like people had been just removed from real life, you know? And then there were some remnants of things that had been dropped by victims,” Wynne recalled.

READ MORE: Over $1.7 million raised for victims of Toronto van attack

“I think those were the hardest things to to see because you know someone dropped a knapsack or there was a shoe and that was someone whose life had been changed forever … There was a fearfulness that I felt when I was there, and then as soon as I spoke to the first responders you know I got to understand a bit better what they were doing.”

Also of paramount concern to Wynne, she said, was getting more information out to the public.

“I believe people want to know that their political leaders are doing their best to pass information along to them that they’re not holding information back,” Wynne said.

“So it’s finding that balance between putting information out into the public realm that that it’s safe and responsible to do, but at the same time recognizing that you have to let the police, let the firefighters, let the investigators do their do their jobs.”

READ MORE: Thousands attend #TorontoStrong vigil for victims of deadly van attack

Standing along side Wynne, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, Tory, and the Toronto fire and paramedics chiefs, Saunders provided the last update of the day — Minassian’s arrest.

“A male was arrested in a white rental truck and he was taken into custody without incident. And right now we have under arrest [Alek] Minassian, aged 25. Right now it appears he’s from Richmond Hill and not Toronto,” he said less than four hours after Yuen spoke.

“We do have a situation here right now where we are really aggressively looking for two pieces right now. One is to identify the victims — all of the victims. And the second … there are a tremendous amount of people that saw some of the events that took place.”

Reflecting on the horror afterward

“The first thing I did (after getting home) was make sure that I didn’t turn on the news. As dispatchers we tend to compartmentalize larger-scale incidents like that so that I could just unpack those boxes later that day and go through it. That’s part of maintaining a healthy mental balance here.” — John Shirley

“I just want to let the victims and the families know that all of us there tried our best and we wish you all the good that could come down the road. I know it’s very hard now for everybody but I know that we’re going to be stronger than ever. #TorontoStrong.” — Tanya Kolenko

“I must say this kind of thing affects different people in different ways. And sometimes it affects you and you don’t really know how it’s affecting you … I realized that this was a big event for our hospital. But I mean I was very happy with how we worked and functioned. I was happy with the outcome. We did the absolute best that we could for the patients that were given to us.” — Dr. Fred Brenneman

“I can feel the sadness as I talk about it because the the reality of people going about their lives completely unsuspecting and being mowed down for no reason — for no rational reason — it’s the saddest, scariest thing I think that we can think of as human beings … It’s haunting those scenes that I experienced. That feeling of that silence haunts me to this day.” — Kathleen Wynne

“I’ll tell you, in my case, [April 23, 2018] had an extraordinary ending to it and it hit me in a way that I still can’t quite deal with it in the sense of not being upset by it. But my wife, Barb, and I had sponsored a refugee family from Syria and they were … arriving at the airport that evening. And … we decided I wouldn’t go to the airport because I didn’t want them to be subject to having publicity associated with their arrival, because we were trying to do it all in a very quiet manner and have them able to come and start their life here in as normal a fashion as possible. So she went to the airport [and] by then the van attack had occurred. And so I felt very badly because we had arranged for their apartment. Barb had lovingly furnished it and all this and everything was just absolutely as ready as you could possibly [need] a home to be. And so I went straight from the sort of end of the day — it was about 10:15 at night — to their apartment. I guess what made me, still makes me, quite emotional about it is that I thought, ‘Here [are] these people that … came to escape terrible things going on in front of their children’s eyes.’ They have two little girls and I thought, ‘I just hope that they don’t hear anything or know anything about this.'” — John Tory

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