’It’s not going away’: Danforth shooting still haunts families, victims 1 year later
On July 22, 2018, Ken Price and Claire Smith were enjoying a warm, quiet summer evening at home when they received a phone call from someone using their daughter’s phone.
The call came just after 10 p.m., and the caller said there had been a shooting on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue — a bustling stretch of restaurants and shops east of the city’s downtown core.
Their daughter Samantha, 17 years old at the time, was out for ice cream on the Danforth with seven friends celebrating a birthday.
The voice said Samantha was injured.
“What we didn’t realize at the time was that Samantha had been shot, basically, at point-blank range,” Price told Global News. “The first thing you want to do is respond. Like you want to go into superhero mode.
“Then you realize you’re kind of helpless.”
Samantha was able to scramble to a nearby restaurant, where a doctor happened to be having dinner and was able to begin administering first aid and stayed by her side until paramedics arrived. Her friend, 18-year-old Reese Fallon was fatally wounded.
“There were two others that were shot multiple times, four others who managed to scramble before they were shot,” Price said. “But there was a group of eight of them that were certainly deeply affected by this.”
When Faisal Hussain opened fire with a handgun, one of the bullets hit Samantha in the hip. She was among the 13 people wounded, while a 10-year-old girl named Julianna Kozis and Fallon died.
Hussain shot himself in the head following the attack.
On the one-year anniversary of the Danforth shooting, victims and their families have spent 12 months in a painful recovery process, and many are still grappling with physical and mental trauma.
“The mental healing is the part that’s really harder to predict, harder to diagnose, harder to react to,” Price said, adding that Samantha’s physical recovery has been slowly progressing after having her hip shattered by a bullet.
Ali Demircan, who was grazed by a bullet during the shooting, said he is still haunted by the memory of seeing Fallon shot. Even the sound of a siren can leave him paralyzed with fear.
“I still hear the shooter’s yelling in my ears,” Demircan said. “It’s not going away.”
Smith said that although her family has begun to heal, there are moments when something like an exploding firework can still be triggering. They also had to relive the terror of that night when a shooting broke out in Nathan Phillips Square at the end of the parade for the Toronto Raptors last month.
Samantha was at the gathering to cheer for the NBA championship team when gunfire erupted, leaving four people injured.
The couple received a call from their terrified daughter.
“’Where do I go? What do I do?’ she asked right away,” Smith said. “Fortunately, she was with some friends, and they found someone to go with and to get inside as fast as they could. But definitely, she was quite rattled after that.”
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Danielle Kane, a nursing student, and her partner, Jerry Pinksen, an emergency room nurse, were out celebrating a friend’s birthday on July 22 at an Italian restaurant when they came face-to-face with the shooter. The couple heard the gunfire erupt and had rushed outside to help someone who was lying on the ground injured.
Kane said she remembers seeing a “bright red flash.”
“I had just enough time to kind of to turn when I was hit in the chest,” Kane said, adding that she instantly lost feeling in her legs. “It was like a numbness, and I was bleeding profusely.”
The bullet shattered a vertebra in her lower back. She spent 11 days in an intensive care unit at St. Michael’s Hospital and underwent four surgeries before spending another 35 days at a neuro trauma unit.
The last half-year has been a painful journey to adjust to a new life with a wheelchair.
“It’s like a marathon that never ends,” Kane said. “It’s like the biggest challenge of your life that just keeps going.
“But I’m lucky I’ve had a lot of support. All those donations people made … and, of course, with my partner Jerry and my family.”
Shortly after the gunfire ended that night — roughly 10 kilometres away — St. Michael’s Hospital was preparing to declare a Code Orange, an ominous term used for mass casualties or catastrophic events. The hospital had just been through a Code Orange months earlier in April when 10 people were killed by a man driving a van down a sidewalk on Yonge Street.
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Dr. Najma Ahmed, who was acting as the head of the St. Michael’s trauma unit, was getting ready for bed that evening when she received a text from a colleague. Four gunshot victims were en route to the hospital.
Ahmed had not yet heard about the mass shooting but jumped in her car and rushed to the hospital. She recalled entering the emergency room and seeing the “quiet chaos” unfolding around her as doctors and nurses worked diligently to repair vital organs and bones shattered by bullets.
“As the hours started to unfold and we learned about the young age [of the victims] and the terrible circumstances, it started to set in that this was a really awful thing and apart from our usual call to duty,” Ahmed said.
“Every single person had a look on their face: ‘I have to bring my best and do my best to get these people through this horrible thing.’”
Doctors, nurses and health workers always train for a mass shooting event but hope they never have to live through it, said Ahmed. As she stood in the operating room surveying the carnage, Ahmed thought the Danforth shooting would change the national conversation about gun safety.
“Gun violence has long-ranging effects,” she said. “As a society and community, [we] have to think about what kind of society we want to live in and whether we want to keep repeating [these shootings] over and over again.”
As wounds began to heal and Toronto’s Greektown began to move past the shooting, police began what would end up being a nearly year-long probe into what happened and what the possible motive was to suddenly open fire on a busy street.
In late June, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders revealed the findings of the investigation, which contained few answers for families seeking closure. Investigators found that Hussain had a long history of mental health issues and repeatedly harmed himself, but they did not determine a motive.
Police found no affiliation with hate or terror groups and no evidence he had been radicalized. They were also not able to determine how he got his hands on the gun.
The report said the weapons were lawfully exported to Toronto in 2013. The firearm was reported stolen in 2016 from a gun store in Saskatchewan, but it is not known how Hussain came into possession of the gun.
“The one question the family and the public wanted to know is why,” Saunders told reporters. “Although we collected all of the evidence that was available to us for this crime, a crime where the shooter died at the scene, we may never know the answer to why.”
The Danforth shooting capped off a violent year in Toronto. According to the latest data from police, there were 511 shootings in 2018 with 289 victims.
For some families affected by the Danforth shooting, the violent summer led them to jump into the world of political advocacy and to push to ban weapons like the Smith & Wesson M&P .40 used.
“No families should ever have to go through what my family and the Kozis do, finding out your 18-year-old sister is lying dead on the Danforth while she was innocently minding her own business,” Quinn Fallon, Reese’s sister, said during a press conference in February.
Price said the calls for change were never about banning all guns but reducing the general supply of weapons.
“We are not trying to say that all gun ownership is the wrong thing. I think there’s a lot of legitimate uses, and those are fair,” he said. “A year ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We are having it because we are definitely affected. And then you have to decide: are you going to speak out or not? And we chose to speak out.”
Federal Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair announced in June that while more needs to be done to tackle gun violence, no new measures would be taken by Liberals before the October election. This included a decision not to pursue a ban on handguns.
Smith said her family will continue to advocate against gun violence.
“I actually wake up every day with the thought in my head of: ‘What shooting will there be this morning?’” she said. “I can’t sit back and watch anymore. I just want to be a part of some kind of solution. I want to be able to speak up and advocate for change.”
Meanwhile, the Young Liberals of Canada have created a fund in Reese Fallon’s honour that will help support members’ travel across the country to take part in conferences, conventions and other events. A scholarship has also been established in her name to be presented by Malvern Collegiate Institute.
On July 21 and 22, 2019, two ceremonies will be held along the Danforth to recognize the victims and will include a sunset vigil on Monday where the names of those killed and injured will be read followed by a ringing of St. Barnabas’ church bells and a moment of silence.
“What we learned was even if you weren’t physically a victim, there are so many victims created by that kind of public act of violence that goes unstated,” Price said. “There’s a multiplier, for sure, that I think has to be taken into account when these crimes are committed.”
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