[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Today on The Big Story, we’ll revisit the Toronto van attack, which happened three years ago today, April 23rd, 2018. Our producer Stefanie Phillips has spent the last little while cobbling together a ton of stories from that day. We’ll hear from firsthand witnesses, from family members of the victims, from people who just happened to be there and didn’t think twice before jumping into the middle of the carnage to help their fellow citizens.
A warning before we begin, some people may find the contents of this episode troubling.
Victoria Williston: So I remember I was working by myself. So I picked up the phone and it was just, you know, a frantic call. And I’m just thinking to myself like, “Oh God, like what, what sort of, like, verbal harassment am I going to have to go through right now,” was my first thought, [00:01:00] which now I feel completely guilty about. But so she was just cold open like, “There’s a van on the sidewalk.” And me I’m like, “Okay, can, can you tell me where?” And she was like, “Yonge Street.”
Stefanie Phillips: That’s Victoria Williston she was a traffic reporter for 680News back on April 23rd, 2018.
Victoria Williston: I’m trying to figure out what’s happening, what do you mean it’s on the side- is it moving? Is it stopped? And she’s like, it’s running into people. And my first thought was like, “Oh God, medical emergency.” Cause like, we have that a lot as well where people have some sort of medical emergency and you know, they drive off the roads, which is terrible in and of itself.
But that isn’t exactly like a, it’s not a news call, so I’m still trying to talk to her, figure out what’s happening, and haven’t really… I didn’t escalate it to the newsroom until she was like, “Oh God, it’s coming back”. So I’m trying to [00:02:00] talk to her on the phone. And she’s like, she’s not screaming. She’s just, she’s trying to get out the best, I guess, the best she could.
And, and, and immediately when she said that I was like, have you called the police? And she was like, no. And I was like, I think I was just like, “Okay, maybe you should”, like, I didn’t know what to say. I was like, I like, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. Like there’s nothing I could do in my, you know, like five foot by six foot booth, right? At that point, I feel helpless. This woman’s standing on Yonge Street and I’m in this booth about to go on air being like, I don’t know what to say. So I shoot off a little message to the newsroom, just being like, I don’t know what’s happening, but you guys need to call police about something on Yonge Street.
But I remember asking her to go on hold and like, thinking back, that seems like the most ridiculous thing to ask a person, but I wanted to keep her on the phone line, but I also had to do [00:03:00] my live report. And then when I, I picked up the phone after I was done the report, she was gone because, obviously who’s going to, you know, stand there sort of waiting for 90 seconds, like, waiting for me to come back. And then probably like 20 minutes later, it was up on the TV and I was just like, Oh my God, like, what is happening?
News Clip: Just after lunchtime in Toronto today, a van plowed into pedestrians. Police say multiple people have been struck.
News Clip: First responders treated victims on the bloodstained sidewalk. It happened near the corner of Yonge and Finch in the city’s North end.
News Clip: Seven minutes. That’s all it took from the first 911 call when, uh, when the incident started at Finch, just up the street to when it ended down to the other side of Sheppard at further down there.
Stefanie Phillips: That was three years ago today, a day that will forever be a scar on Toronto. The day 10 people were killed, 16 [00:04:00] others were injured, and the city was left traumatized. If you were living in Toronto at the time, you probably have a memory from that day. I know I got a text from a friend. She asked me if I had any information about what was happening. Her mom worked in the area and she was worried for her safety.
I can’t tell you exactly what the message said or where I was when I got it. But. I remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach, the feeling that something terrible had happened.
I’m Stefanie Phillips, producer on The Big Story.
So where were you on April 23rd, 2018, when, um, when you first heard about the attack?
Momin Qureshi: Yeah, it was, um, a normal day. You know, my, my [00:05:00] job is as a mid-day reporter, I’m usually out covering things, uh, and specifically, uh, my usual duties, uh, revolve around Toronto City Hall.
So I remember very clearly, uh, I was in Scarborough at a hotel near Kennedy and the 401. The mayor was supposed to make some big speech to a group in Scarborough.
Stefanie Phillips: That’s Momin Qureshi. He’s the mid-day reporter for 680News in Toronto.
Momin Qureshi: And so, uh, myself and a bunch of my colleagues, reporters, camera operators, we were all, um, standing on kind of a riser at the back of this ballroom, waiting for the mayor to come up as everybody was eating their lunch.
And I remember, one by one, in the span of probably like two minutes, you could see every reporter and every camera operator’s phone go off, kind of look down at their phone. Clearly, it was either a breaking news alert or some sort of message from their editor or their producer that something very serious had happened.
And you could see people quickly packing up their stuff, uh, and kind of heading out the door. And we all did it, like I said, [00:06:00] like in a matter of was probably like two or three minutes, we had all like grabbed our stuff and just took off out the door. And I got in my car and I called my editor from the car and he kind of explained what had happened, and I started driving.
And for me, what really stood out was my, uh, my cousin lives right on that corner. He lives in a condo right on that corner where the van initially mounted the curb and started driving. And so, I immediately called him, uh, you know, cause I was concerned that he was out there because, uh, it was such a nice day.
And thankfully at that time he was only 20. He was a typical university kid only just waking up at the time, you know, rolling out of bed after noon. Um, and his mom was already at work downtown, so, you know, they weren’t involved.
And um, then I remember kind of rolling up to the scene. And it was such a nice day, you know, it was like probably the first real nice day of the year. It was, it was, you know, early April, people were out, it was probably 15, 16 degrees. You could see people walking out without jackets, kind of going outside to [00:07:00] get some lunch, getting some fresh air, you know, that feeling in Canada when, when winter is finally gone.
So there was a lot of people outside and I just remember people were kind of gathered around and talking about it, but nobody was really sure exactly what had happened. And then as I, you know, started to walk around and talk to people and go further down the street, that’s when everything kind of started to become a little clearer.
Rob Greco: Well, that day it was, uh, kind of a weird day because I was sick on the weekend and I wasn’t going to go to work that day. And I just decided kind of last minute to go to work.
Stefanie Phillips: Rob Greco is a sheet metal worker by trade. On this day, he was on his way to work. Just enjoying the nice weather and listening to the radio.
Rob Greco: I ended up taking the 407 across to Yonge Street. I was listening to 1050CHUM. Um, they were talking about the Leafs playing the Bruins that night. It was playoffs. [00:08:00] Actually, I believe, I believe I left a voicemail. There was a contest to win tickets or something for that game that night.
And I, I left some kind of a crazy, um, voicemail on the thing and I was singing to them and I was doing all kinds of crazy stuff, thinking maybe they’ll hear it, and they’re going to give me the tickets anyway.
So, just before I dialled 911, I came to a stop at a set of lights right there at that cross street. And I looked over and there was a Boston Pizza, and soon as I saw it, I said, “Oh, wouldn’t it be something if they shut down all the Boston Pizzas tonight, just to give the Leafs a chance to win this game”.
And as I was saying that the van pulled up beside me, which was his van. And it kind of moved just ahead of me a little bit. So I couldn’t really see [00:09:00] him, but I saw the van, the rental van, and now the light turned green and he floored it. He like, you could hear the engine, his engine scream. And I’m thinking to myself, there’s a parked vehicle right there on the side. If you want to pass me, cause I was in the middle lane, go right ahead. I’m in no rush. I’m early for work.
But then I saw him immediately veer toward the sidewalk. At this point, my foot was off the gas, and I was starting to break. And I’m watching in disbelief, and watching him run people over. Finally, Anne Marie was the last one and she was left there, flat on her back on the ground.
So when I saw it, I just, I ran right to the sidewalk. I ran right to her and when I ran to her, I dropped to my knees, but I had the [00:10:00] phone on my ear, holding it, and talking to the 911 operator. And I stayed with her and talked to her. And after about, I’d have to say maybe, I dunno, it’s probably the longest 13, 14 minutes of my life.
It was 13 minutes till they got to me.
Stefanie Phillips: Anne Marie D’Amico was 30 years old when she died that day. At the time, she was a complete stranger to Rob. He had no idea who this woman was or why fate had brought him there on the pavement with her.
Rob Greco: After leaving the scene, I drove up the street and pulled into a gas station and I just stopped and put my head on my steering wheel. And I just bawled my eyes out and then I just kept telling myself, “Rob, get it together, get it together. You got to get [00:11:00] home where you’re safe. You need to get home to be safe.” And I managed to drive myself home. I pulled into the driveway and I sat in my truck with blood on one side of my leg and boots.
And I just sat in my truck for about 45 minutes and I didn’t move. And my girlfriend came home and said, “What are you doing in the truck? Why aren’t you inside?” And I said, “I don’t know.” I just, I couldn’t move. I was in shock. I couldn’t move. She goes, “Get out, come out of the truck.” Then she saw my pants and my boots, she goes, “My God, you’re still in those clothes, you got to get undressed, got to get washed up.”
And that was the start of the end for me, because like I said, it, it changed my whole life and, uh. [00:12:00] That night I stayed awake all night pretty much trying to figure out how do I find who this girl is? All I knew was Anne Marie, how do I find who Anne Marie is?
Nick D’Amico: I was living at home at the time, working in one of the rooms we have on the second floor. And I was talking to my manager, um, and it’s- we were talking about the bus crash, Humboldt, the Humboldt team that, and then she talked about this van that was driving down Yonge Street, and I didn’t know much about it.
And I was like, yeah, I can’t believe this has happened. Like, what’s going on? Like, this is absolutely crazy. And, uh, we were chatting about that and we kind of just started talking about work. And then all of a sudden I heard my mom in the room down the hall and just like, let out this yell. [00:13:00] And, uh, I didn’t, I didn’t think anything of it, we’re a pretty loud family. So I kind of like, well, that’s, that’s mom. And then she did it again, like 10 seconds later. I’m like, okay, something’s up. So I told my manager I had to go and mom told me that she got a call from her work that my sister was hit.
Uh, my name is Nick D’Amico. I’m a real estate agent. I’m currently the president of the Anne Marie D’Amico Foundation. Well, my sister was just an incredible human being as far as, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, obviously I’m biased, she was my sister, but she was kind of the, the. The person, the woman in the family who really kind of lead us in terms of kind acts and doing, doing good things for others and, and being that person that just really gave with her whole heart.
Yeah. Those are probably the biggest qualities, but she was just, she was full of life to begin with. She did nothing- she always wants to do everything she wanted to. She went skydiving. She went [00:14:00] to England, went cheese rolling, uh, that big event where they roll a block of cheese down a hill, she could participate in that.
She, you know, she’s like zany. She went to Wiarton Willie’s funeral. That groundhog that would tell us if we get more spring or winter, she went to the funeral in Wiarton with her, with her cousin. So she’s just like, just so full of life, just so full of life.
Um, the days that followed were bit of a circus, like it was, we have some, some people close to us who were in media and they had actually told their media stations to kind of stay away from us. Cause my sister was kind of the only victim that was identified for the longest time. So all of a sudden we were kind of thrust into this, like, spotlight on, like, un- unknowingly and unprepared and not, not really wanting to be in that spotlight.
And you know, I remember checking my phone the next day or two days, and [00:15:00] my wife and my sister, my, my oldest sister Francis. And we just got like inundated with, with media requests, like around the globe, like people from, like, everywhere, wanted to talk to us about what was going on and we ignored everything.
And obviously, I, I remember that night coming back home and just having like the worst sleep I’ve ever had in my life. And wake up the next morning and like that heavy, heavy, heavy feeling of just being like, what the hell just happened. Like this is, I can’t believe it. So you’re, you’re not even shocked. You just, I don’t even know what to call it. Um, it’s like combination of like the worst shock and denial you can possibly imagine all rolled into one, so.
And then, you know, the weeks and months afterwards, you’re just, you’re just trying to grapple with it. You’re just tired. You don’t have any energy. You don’t have any zest for life. Like you really don’t have, you don’t really care about anything.
Stefanie Phillips: And how has all of this [00:16:00] changed your life? Like when you think about Nick before and Nick after, how have you changed?
Nick D’Amico: Y’know, I’ve uh. I’ve grappled with that, because, um, I’ve got two daughters. So like my life is chaotic. Like, it’s just, you wake up at 6:00 AM with the kids, and you have, you know, send them off to nursery school or whatever, and then you have to go to work. Um, I’m a, um, I’m uh self-employed so I have to continue working. So for me, it’s like, I, I don’t know how I’m different, but I, I, for me, I don’t want to forget her. And I don’t want her to, you know, not be a part of who I am.
I don’t want her to not be a part of the family. I don’t want it to be kind of this thing where it’s like, yeah, my sister died in this horrible thing. Like there hasn’t really been a day that I haven’t thought about her, but it’s [00:17:00] like, how do you think about her, how do you, you know, how do you kind of put yourself in this new normal, y’know, if.
It’s I dunno. It’s, it’s been, it’s been difficult. It’s been difficult to me to say like, well, what more can I do? Like, I know I have to work, but how, how do I continue living with her? How do I continue with bringing her legacy forward? You know, am I doing enough with the foundation? You know, what else should we do? Like, you know, how else can we connect?
So it’s, it’s always like, for me, it’s like, am I doing enough?
Stefanie Phillips: That day changed Rob Greco, too.
Rob Greco: I don’t know. I still run into people today who ask me, that I haven’t seen in a long time. How are you? Are you okay? You know. Uh, I usually say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m okay.” That became norm for me, because I didn’t want to get into the whole, I’m really not okay, but I’m okay. I’m okay enough to get by, but am I really okay? I don’t know. I don’t know, I don’t know anymore. [00:18:00] If I get through the day and go to sleep and wake up and able to face another day, then I’m okay, you know?
There’s always something that reminds me of that day. Three years later, I still remember it’s 5061 Yonge, April 23rd, 2018, 1:13 PM. Like, you know, um, it’s, it’s just crazy. It’s crazy how without even talking about it, how the movie is playing in my head, where I’m looking at you, but I can see the van going on the sidewalk and hitting everyone.
Stefanie Phillips: It’s a horrible image that Rob has spent years trying to forget. He was going to therapy until COVID hit, and [00:19:00] continues to take medication daily for his PTSD.
Rob Greco: I’ve come to terms with the fact that I have to wake up every morning, walk to that counter and take two of those pills. That reminds me every morning. That’s how I start my day. I’m being reminded by those two little jars of pills that say to me, “Remember that day, Rob? Take the pills.”
You know what, it is what it is. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I would, I would give my life to save someone else’s, ’cause that’s just who I am. And I don’t regret any of it.
Because these people were strangers to a lot of people, the people that have lost their lives, it’s hard to say, remember those people, but [00:20:00] yes, remember those people that lost their lives. Remember those people whose lives were altered. Remember what happened and do your part so that it doesn’t happen again.
I broke down after what I witnessed and, uh, I’m still going strong, trying to be a good person. I help all my neighbors. I tell people, I love them. I say hello to strangers, uh, by coffee for strangers when I’m in the lineup sometimes, you know, it’s not every day, but once in a while I do it, you know, so. It’s just, just do what you can. Just do what you can. And, and never forgot. Don’t- it’s not yesterday’s news. It’s something that the world learned from. The whole world was watching us at that [00:21:00] time, everybody was in awe wondering, “How could that happen in Canada?”
Stefanie Phillips: It’s a question we ask ourselves too often. And in the time since, we’ve been trying to find an answer. Earlier this year, the person accused of the crimes was found guilty on 10 counts of first degree murder, and 16 counts of attempted murder.
But the verdict did little to confirm the motivations behind the attack. What we do know is that of the 10 people who were killed that day, eight of them were women. A grandmother enjoying retirement, an international student working towards graduation, an up-and-coming chef, a single mother.
Nick D’Amico: I think it’s definitely, it’s definitely opened up people’s eyes to the fact that, y’know, although we live in Canada, we live in Toronto, in this wonderful city in this incredible place, that we do, we can’t [00:22:00] take it for granted, that we’re just immune to these horrible things that happen that, you know, these things can continue. These things may happen again.
So I don’t know if it’s changed, right? I hope it has changed where people really, you know, deeply believe that they have to be there for one another, that they really have to look out for each other, that they really can’t take for granted the relationship they have with people, because it’d be gone- it can be gone in an instant.
Stefanie Phillips: After the attack, Anne Marie’s family created a foundation in her name to help end violence against women. It’s a way to celebrate her life and remember her for all the good she did for others. They’re currently raising money for a women’s shelter in North York, and plan to carry out their annual event, The Turtle Project, which takes place on Anne Marie’s birthday in December.
Nick D’Amico: Our goal is, is to do that is to, is to raise, raise a million dollars. And I think for us that would be a huge achievement. It’s [00:23:00] not easy to raise, to raise money, especially in this climate. So, uh, it’s, it’s definitely something we- even having this conversation, anytime we talk about the foundation, it just brings a sense of calmness over me. Like I was really jittery all morning, I had things to do. And then as soon as I talked about the foundation, like, it really is something that calms you down, it kind of brings that- brings you back to kind of reality and grounds you. So, I hope that it can do the same thing for others and you realize just how much, you know, how much it impacts you, so.
We have to remember that there’s women and children that live right here in our city, in, in very violent situations, and are really struggling because of it, and are traumatized because is it because of it, their lives are changed because of it, so. We have to keep that in mind, to keep that conversation alive ,and make sure we do our do what we can to, to change that narrative.
We have to be better to one another. We have to understand that those that we talk to, those who we bring into our circle, those that we’re, we develop relationships with, you know, we help mold [00:24:00] them in some way, shape, or form. So being the best person you can to that person was only going to help others and the rest of society live a better life, and live, live in a way that is more harmonious. So I think if I could, if we could take one takeaway from, from what happened that day, I think that’s the best thing we can, we can do.
Stefanie Phillips: When the judge read her verdict on the case, she said it was one of the most devastating tragedies the city has ever endured. The accused pled guilty to all charges, but argued that he was not criminally responsible for his actions under Section 16 of the criminal code. This is the section that states a person cannot be criminally responsible for a crime committed while suffering from a mental disorder. This disorder makes them incapable of knowing what they did was legally and morally wrong.
But the judge decided that the accused did know, and he decided to do it anyway. [00:25:00] He did it without empathy for his victims, and for the purpose of achieving fame. For this reason, when the judge delivered her verdict, she chose not to use his name, instead referring to him only as John Doe. And it’s for this reason you have not heard his name today.
The people we spoke to are just a small fraction of those whose lives were completely altered by the attack. And it’s these people and the victims who we choose to remember.
We’ll leave you with this memory from 680News reporter, Momin Qureshi.
Momin Qureshi: I was sitting on the curb, uh, of this bubble tea shop, and again, I was kind of just typing out my story. And this guy came up to me out of nowhere, was this, uh, South Asian man, I think he was probably in his, like, mid-twenties, and he sat down next to me and he said, “Do you mind if you interview me for a second?”
And so I hit record and I said, “Sure, what do you want to say?” And he said, “You know, I live in one of these buildings [00:26:00] and I heard the whole thing happen. And when I looked out on the road, I saw this woman on the ground. And so I ran out of my apartment to help her. But by the time I got down the stairs and out the door, there was already somebody else with her.
“And so I remember me and this other guy were helping this woman trying to comfort her.” And he said, “You know, I don’t think it was that long. It was probably only a few minutes where we were with this woman. And she was clearly badly hurt. Uh, and we were waiting for the ambulance to get there. And it was, was such a difficult thing to sit through and it’s such, it’s such a difficult thing to go through.”
But he said, “You know, I really want to say to your listeners right now,” and I remember him saying this so clearly. He said, “I really want to say to your listeners right now that our city went through something terrible today, something that we’ve never seen before, but I really want you to remember the good that happened today. Remember that people came out of their apartments to help people, that everyday citizens banded together to [00:27:00] be with people in their time of need, to be with people when they needed it most,” he goes, “even if you weren’t with a victim of this, I could see people on the streets and in the community hugging people who didn’t know each other, people offering to help each other in different ways, to stand together, to be a community, to be united.
He said, “I think that’s what we have to remember most today. Is not what happened and not, uh, this person who committed this heinous act, but the way the community responded, the way people responded, the way people gave of themselves.” And he goes, “You have to remember when people came running out into the street to help people, they didn’t know if it was over, they could have been putting themselves in harm’s way. They didn’t know if the van was going to come back. They didn’t know if it was going to circle around, but they wanted to help.” And he said, “You know, I just want people to remember the good, and that people were willing to help and be there for their community in the, in the worst moment the city has ever seen.”
And that conversation with that guy, and I wish I still had the tape of that interview because that’s the thing I remember the most. You know, we’ve all seen that hashtag [00:28:00] #TorontoTheGood that comes out every now and then. And I’ve kind of made it my mantra in my career before that guy even said that to me, that every time I cover something terrible, whether it’s a crash or a fire or a murder, a shooting, a stabbing, what you always see is the goodness of people coming out.
So if I’m at the scene of, uh, something that’s horrible, you always see a neighbour come out and start to offer people coffee or cookies or shelter, or people offering some sort of support, just being there for each other. And I have to remember those things. And specifically from that day, I have to remember that guy’s comments, because if you don’t.
‘Cause if you don’t, you can tumble down a well of, like, despair almost, because the worst things that happen can become the things you remember the most, but you have to remember the good things that surround it, um, because that’s what is going to carry you [00:29:00] forward.
Stefanie Phillips: That was The Big Story, and I’m producer Stefanie Phillips. You can help the D’Amico family work towards ending violence against women and reach their goal of $1 million by donating at damicofoundation.org. We’ll leave a link for you in the episode description.
As always, thank you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review in your podcast player of choice. Jordan will be back on Monday.
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