One year after Toronto van attack, victim’s family and witnesses find new ways to help others

Rocco D’Amico has spent the last year trying to be a better person.

“It helps for the healing process. We’ve got to land on something positive,” says D’Amico, father of Anne Marie D’Amico, one of the 10 people killed in the van attack in Toronto last April.

The loss is still raw for D’Amico, whose voice cracks when he remembers his daughter — her smile, her positive attitude and her giving spirit. But those memories have also motivated his family to move forward.

“I try to think of all the wonderful things she did,” says her brother Nick D’Amico.

“If you just take a better approach to dealing with people, dealing with issues, having a positive mindset, it can do wonders.”

That sentiment is echoed by other witnesses and care providers affected by the attack on Yonge Street on April 23, 2018, that also injured 16 people.

“There’s something to be said for the community and how we’ve bonded together,” said Tiffany Jefkins, a North York resident who was at Mel Lastman Square the day of the attack.

Thinking back to the day, it’s just a blur, Jefkins says. “There’s really just a lot of fragmented memories.”

Jefkins, a registered CPR trainer, snapped into action the day of the attack. She was having a picnic with her nearly one-year-old daughter and a friend when the van hopped the curb, plowing into people on the street.

After making sure her daughter was safe, Jefkins ran into the chaos, assisting four victims, performing basic first aid and CPR as they waited for paramedics.

“It felt empowering, but also terrifying at the same time,” she says. “It felt like we had to do something.”

Although Jefkins says she feels safe in her neighbourhood, moments of trauma return with the sound of a truck bumping up Yonge Street or a car hitting a pothole.

“Unfortunately I relate it to that day and relate it to the van and knowing the unpredictability of people.”

It’s a similar experience for Sean Huh, a pastor at Faith Church around the corner from where some of the first victims were hit.

“It was just a beautiful sunny day, so many people were out, and then all of a sudden, in a matter of minutes, there was just chaos,” he says.

Huh hosted an ongoing vigil for the community following the attack. He also spent time walking up and down Yonge Street talking to neighbours and shopkeepers, making sure they felt supported.

“I didn’t know exactly what else to do,” Huh says. “There were so many people that wanted to talk.”

Now Huh is part of We Love Willowdale, a community group organizing memorial services with support from the city, one year after the attack.

On top of memorial services Tuesday at Olive Square Park and Mel Lastman Square, Huh and his group will host a community dinner, where they expect more than 1,000 people at six different sites.

“To share a meal together, there’s something very engaging about that,” Huh says. “You can’t just sit and eat and walk away. There’s going to be conversations.”

Christine O’Brien says she can’t remember anything from the morning of April 23. She is a spiritual care practitioner at Sunnybrook Hospital and was walking down the hall when she heard the call for a code orange. That’s the term used in the hospital for a mass casualty situation.

“I thought it was another training,” O’Brien says. “The hospital had been working on their code orange plan and I figured OK, this is just another one.”

It wasn’t until she arrived in the auditorium when she realized it was real.

That auditorium became the access point for family members as they searched for news of loved ones involved in the attack. For some of them, O’Brien was the first person they spoke to.

“We have a little part in this but we really want to do it well,” O’Brien says of those first interactions.

“Hopefully it helps somebody in some way because …. really all we can do is journey with them.”

Alek Minassian, of Richmond Hill, Ont., the man charged in connection with the attack, faces 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. His court case has been put over to May 7.

One year after the attack, O’Brien says Sunnybrook is still managing the trauma that followed it.

“I think all of us have become more intentional about supporting each other.”

O’Brien says there are still spaces in the hospital that trigger reminders of that day. When that happens she says she tries to acknowledge her feelings before moving forward.

“I feel a bunch of stuff. I feel pain. I feel helpless. I feel sad. I feel angry.” she says. “But they’re momentary because I keep moving, because I’m working and doing something else right.”

The hospital has organized a private memorial service for staff to mark one year since the attack on Yonge Street. It’s something O’Brien says will help staff process the trauma and move forward together.

“I feel that something has changed,” O’Brien says. “That does not mean evil doesn’t happen. It does happen with very sad regularity … but I think that there is some kind of awareness now of the importance of being there for each other.”

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