Diane Ryan waited on the church stairs in her community of Amqui, Que., the day after a driver rammed into pedestrians on a busy boulevard in an alleged brazen attack.
The fatal crash killed two men and injured nine others Monday in what Quebec provincial police have described as a “premeditated act.” Steeve Gagnon, 38, was charged with dangerous driving causing the deaths of Gérald Charest, 65, and Jean Lafrenière, 73.
As of Wednesday, three people are still fighting for their lives. A Quebec City hospital confirmed that three of the victims who were airlifted to the centre after Monday’s crash remain in critical condition, while a fourth is in stable condition.
After she learned about the tragedy, Ryan says she cried her eyes out.
“It’s close here. It is not like in a big city,” said Ryan, who grew up in the Gatineau region. “When something this tragic happens to one person, it happens to everyone.”
Ryan moved to the small eastern Quebec town, which boasts a little more than 6,000 people, three years ago. Police believe the victims were chosen at random — and Ryan says she and her mom often walk along the same stretch on St-Benoît Boulevard.
While Ryan doesn’t personally know the victims, she says “everyone knows someone who does” and the entire community is affected by the searing loss.
That’s why she decided to stand outside the church, which has become a gathering point for grief-stricken residents. Ryan wanted to offer an ear to those who need it.
“Everyone is just rallying. That’s how the community is tight here,” Ryan said.
The concrete stairs are lined with dozens of stuffed animals, candles and a vase of bright-coloured flowers at the top. The church bells ring out in the town every day after 3 p.m. — the time the victims were struck.
The makeshift memorial is one of many tributes to the victims across Canada. In Toronto, the CN Tower dimmed for five minutes at the top of each hour Tuesday night.
Quebec Premier François Legault announced that the flag atop the legislature would be lowered to half-mast Wednesday and that he would visit Amqui on Thursday along with the leaders of the major opposition parties.
Amqui town officials announced Wednesday their flag will fly at half-mast until March 20. They also encouraged people to leave flowers and other signs of solidarity at city hall.
A memorial service will be held Friday at the church in Amqui. Catholic parish priest Kindé Cosme Arouko described the town as warm and peaceful.
“It was a shock,” he said, speaking of the crash. “I was shaken, a bit troubled even because it was a big shock for a community like ours.”
Cosme Arouko praised Amqui residents for coming together, adding he will continue to pray that “everyone can maintain hope and the courage to overcome this tragedy.”
‘It hurt me like everyone else’
Saint-Léon-le-Grand, a small municipality about 10 minutes away from Amqui, is where the accused lived as a child. Mayor Jean-Côme Lévesque knows Gagnon and his wife taught him in school.
In an interview, Lévesque said he saw Gagnon right before the fatal collision Monday afternoon. The two briefly crossed paths outside before Gagnon got into a pickup truck.
The mayor drove by the scene on his way back from a car wash, thinking it was an accident until he learned it was “a carnage, a tragedy.”
“It hurt me like everyone else,” Lévesque said.
Lévesque said Gagnon had recently stopped working and had become more withdrawn. But the mayor was shocked when he heard Gagnon was accused in the crime.
Lévesque said his thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones. He also knew Gérald Charest, one of the men who was killed in the crash, and would often see him out for walks in the area.
“He was a very good man,” he said.
The case returns to court April 5, and Gagnon will remain detained until then.
— with files from Global News’ Annabelle Olivier and The Canadian Press