Survivors, first responders and Good Samaritans reflect on the Toronto van attack

Today is the one-year anniversary of the van attack on Yonge Street that killed 10 people and injured 16. As events take place throughout the community—focusing on healing and bringing people together—some survivors, first responders and witnesses reflect on the tragic day.

Roula Massin speaks with CTV News Toronto's Austin Delaney

With reports from CTV News Toronto's Heather Wright, Austin Delaney, Scott Lightfoot, Katherine DeClerq, Rachel D'Amore and The Canadian Press

April 23, 2018

Timeline of what happened that day

Timeline: The Toronto van incident as it unfolded

The first call to police was made at 1:27 p.m. on April 23, 2018.

Witnesses described a white van cutting a swath of destruction down Yonge Street, one of the city’s busiest roads, between Finch and Sheppard Avenues.

An arrest of the suspect on Poyntz Avenue was made at 1:52 p.m.

During those 25 minutes, the 2.2-kilometre stretch of Yonge Street became a scene of mass casualties.

Police said the suspect drove south, "striking pedestrians on the sidewalks and the roadway with the vehicle."

Here’s a riveting account of a man who was not only a witness, but who tried to chase down the suspect:

Witness says he chased van and honked horn to warn others about attack

Toronto Mayor John Tory said the pain of the day continues to be felt today, by everyone who loves the city. But that the event also set off a wave of solidarity and support among Toronto residents. 

"Though the healing process goes on, we did heal fast and we will be stronger because we have worked hard to make sure that love and acceptance remain at the centre of our city’s very being, not the polarization and division we see in so many other places." — Mayor John Tory, April 23, 2019

One year later

With Toronto on her side, van attack victim Cathy Riddell moves forward after dark days

Cathy Riddell (left) met TTC Special Constables Angela Johnston and Bill Perivolaris ahead of the one-year anniversary of the van attack. The officers jumped to action to help those wounded (CTV News Toronto)

“Look forward. Try and make the best of your life, because it’s the only one you are going to get.”

Cathy Riddell had just gone to the bank and was on her way to the library when she was struck on Finch Avenue. She says she doesn't remember being hit, or going to the hospital. Legally blind since birth, she has always relied on her ears when she was out walking.

But she never heard the van coming, and was thrown about 15 feet and landed near a bus shelter, suffering a fractured pelvis, ribs, hip and sacrum, and suffered damage to her spine, right arm and left leg — and several large hematomas that kept her confined to a hospital bed for more than two months.

But the 67-year-old former Paralympian and marathon runner says she doesn't have time to be angry at the man who forever changed her life.

"Whatever energy I have, I have to donate to myself to get better," she told CTV News Toronto's Heather Wright.

Grandmother 'catastrophically' injured in van attack thankful to be alive

Aleksandra Kozhevnikova, 92, is photographed at her home in Toronto on Sunday, April 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

"She is very, very sensitive now, she can start crying . . . she worries about everything."

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Ninety-two-year-old Aleksandra Kozhevnikova lived alone and led an active life before she was hit by the van on Yonge Street last April.

One of the 16 injured survivors, Kozhevnikova doesn't want to talk about the attack that killed 10 people and robbed her of the independence that she so valued, her son, Vadym Kozhevnikov, told the Canadian Press.

It stirs up too many emotions.

Kozhevnikov said his mother now requires constant care from a personal support worker, and she can't walk more than a few steps without assistance or switching to a wheelchair.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Good Samaritans reflect on North York van attack

From left: Roula Massin and Rob Little speak with CTV Toronto's Austin Delaney as they walk down Yonge Street 

"They say time flies—time didn't fly this year. It was heavy, like me and Rob, when we talk we have pain inside, scars inside."

Roula Massin and Rob Little were acquaintances who worked at the Toronto District School Board, until a year ago today, when they rushed to the aid of van attack victims lying on the pavement.

Dorothy Sewell, 80, was “the best grandma you could ask for,” said her grandson Elwood Delaney.

Massin and Little, both CPR-trained, administered first-aid to victims until paramedics arrived. Massin went to the aid of Dorothy Sewell, but the 80-year-old grandmother died in her arms.

As she held Dorothy's hand: “I said to her, ‘I promise you that I’m going to pray everyday, and I will walk everyday here.'" Speaking with CTV News Toronto after the attack, Massin said she wanted Sewell’s family to know that she “went in peace.”

For Rob Little, the images and sounds from that day still haunt him, and he's getting professional counselling to cope.

"Because life is fragile."

"Everytime I walk here, I think, ‘this is where it happened,’" he told CTV News Toronto's Austin Delaney as they walked along Yonge Street.

Rob Little in an interview with Austin Delaney

"It just reminds me how life can be taken away from someone you love, so quickly. So in that respect, I appreciate every day, every relationship that I have and it’s made me really internalize it and feel like, you know, this may be the last time I see this person, so I must make the best of it," he said.

"So I appreciate all the interactions with friends and family on a daily basis. Because life is fragile.”

Massin said Little has become "like a brother" to her since the tragic day. "There's a connection, a deep connection and caring," she said, "because together we have the pain, without talking about it."

Massin told CTV News Toronto that she still feels a lot of anger towards the man who allegedly drove the van.

“I’m angry because (of) the way they died,” she said. “It’s hard, when you see their bodies.”

But there's one place where Massin said she's able to feel at peace – a memorial tree planted in honour of Sewell, near the building where Sewell used to live and a pool where she used to swim everyday in the summer.

Massin feels like it is a place where she goes to see a friend.

“I have no idea, but when I come here … she is telling me, 'Roula, I’m okay.'”

"There was a lot more to the story than this": First responders reflect on the day, from the first call to arriving on the scene

John Shirley speaks with CTV News Toronto's Scott Lightfoot

"It was unprecedented for the city."

John Shirley is an advanced emergency medical dispatcher, a 14-year veteran with the service, who was training new employees that Monday afternoon when the first calls started coming in.

He remembers the precise time of a call he took: 1:31 p.m. He described the caller as "quite calm."

"He was able to describe everything that was happening on scene," he told CTV News Toronto's Scott Lightfoot. But "towards the end of the call, he had said something which made me think, there’s more to this than your typical pedestrian struck. The way he just described it was, there was a lot more to the story than this." 

Also a tactical trained dispatcher, he approached his supervisor and the decision was made to set up a tactical desk, set up to handle emergencies with multiple patients. The 911 call centre would respond to more than 870 calls over the next few hours, directly related to the attack.

"It was unprecedented for the city," said Shirley. "We're not really used to seeing those kind of things we hear about all over the news, all over the world. We don't really see it here in the City of Toronto."

Christopher Rotolo speaks with CTV News Toronto's Scott Lightfoot

"It was nothing like I've ever seen before."

As the calls were flooding the 911 call centre, paramedics were dispatched and were rushing to North York. Christopher Rotolo, a 12-year advanced care paramedic, was one of them. He was dropping off a patient at Mount Sinai Hospital downtown when he got the first radio call. While en route, he realized the incident wasn't limited to one intersection.

“It became apparent that we were going to a large-scale, multi-patient incident," he told CTV News Toronto's Scott Lightfoot.

His job once at the scene was to find the most critically-injured victims and transport them to Sunnybrook Hospital's trauma centre as fast as possible.

"It was quite the surreal scene," he recalled, "it was like nothing I've ever seen before." Still, the sheer scale of what happened didn't hit him until later.

"When I got home and turned on the news, seeing the aerial shots ... I never got a true sense (of what happened) until I actually sat down and turned on the news."

Rotolo said he wanted to commend all the first responders who did their jobs on April 23, 2018. "Everybody really banded together that day. It was a very difficult scene and presented a lot of challenges because of the sheer volume and sheer size of the scene was unprecedented in this city," he said. "We all did our best that day and it was a real team effort."

On the day of the first anniversary, Mayor John Tory said this of first responders:

"They're heroes everyday but on that day, they were absolutely heroes."

Tory announced the city will be holding an event later this spring to recognize all those first responders who were on Yonge Street that day, along with those who responded to the Danforth attack months later.

Witnesses still struggling one year later

Dion Fitzgerald is photographed along the corner where he first witnessed the aftermath of the 2018 van attack while out on his lunch break, on April 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

And then there are the witnesses of the horrific event, struggling with the trauma of what they saw and suffering from everything from survivor guilt to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dion Fitzgerald, a 43-year-old father who works with troubled teens and young adults, told The Canadian Press he was walking down Yonge Street that day to get lunch when he was the first body.

He was worried it was one of the young people he worked with, but saw it was an older man as he got closer. "He was already gone," said Fitzgerald. Then, he came across body after body as he was searching for anyone he might know.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

He said the guilt settled in when he was back at the youth shelter and scouring the news for information about the incident.

"What really hit me was I didn't stay with anybody," he said. "I kept moving." He said he questioned his actions in the months that followed, and tried to process his emotions creatively by painting, but it was "too difficult."

Research by Doha Hanno