A city north of Montreal was united in grief on Thursday as parents, community members and elected officials gathered to pay tribute to two children who were killed a day earlier when a city bus rammed into a daycare during a busy morning drop-off period.
Throughout the day, a steady stream of visitors stopped to add to the growing memorial of flowers and teddy bears in front of the boarded-up Garderie Éducative Ste-Rose, in Laval, Que., wiping away tears and expressing their incomprehension at what authorities say was a deliberate attack.
André Beaudoin, a father of a two-year-old boy who attends the daycare, said he had to push through debris on Wednesday to help pull injured children from under the bus, which had shattered the front of the building.
“I managed to get four out; the last girl … her head was stuck really bad,” he told reporters.
Beaudoin said he had just parked to drop off his son when he saw the city bus barrel into the daycare. He said he ran into the building, and despite the fact that most of the children had fled, “we heard the screams” of those still trapped.
Two children, both four years old, were killed in the crash and six others were hospitalized. Pierre Ny St-Amand, a 51-year-old driver with the Laval transit corporation, was arrested at the scene and later charged with two counts of first-degree murder as well as seven other charges, including attempted murder and aggravated assault.
On Thursday, large sheets of plywood covered the damaged wall of the fenced-off building, next to a cheerful sign spelling out the daycare’s name in pink letters. Piles of debris from the damaged roof and interior lay in the snow. The bus, which had been lodged in the wall, was towed away late Wednesday.
Two children injured in the alleged attack have been released from hospital, Montreal health officials said Thursday. One of them is a close friend of the twin daughters of Bruno Belzile and Geneviève Berthiaume Gagnon, a couple who returned to the scene Thursday.
The couple’s twin daughters, who are now in elementary school, also knew one of the two children who died. “We went to birthdays together with her,” Berthiaume Gagnon said.
“We want to wait and find the right words to tell them what happened,” she said about her twin daughters. “We don’t want to scare them about life in general.”
Belzile and Berthiaume Gagnon also have a daughter, two and a half years old, who was in the daycare when the bus hit. Berthiaume Gagnon said she expects it will take some time for her youngest to get over the shock. “Yesterday when my husband came into her room while I was reading her a story, he just opened the door and she jumped,” she said.
Meanwhile, Quebec Premier François Legault and other political leaders visited the neighbourhood to offer support to families and daycare workers affected by the tragedy.
Legault also spoke briefly with Beaudoin, who told the premier, “Our daycares have to be protected.” He said there should be barriers installed in front of the facilities to shield them from vehicles.
Alongside Beaudoin was Hamdi Benchaabane, a neighbour who had rushed to the scene Wednesday morning and, with Beaudoin and two others, helped subdue the driver.
Legault told both men he was proud of them.
“Don’t minimize what you did, to have jumped on the man,” the premier said. He stressed that psychological help is available for people who have been traumatized. “Don’t hesitate to go and talk to people,” he told the men. “It’s important. It’s necessary.” He said the same message applies to children and workers who were present when the bus hit.
“It’s images that they will live with all their lives,” he said.
Earlier in the day, authorities were still trying to understand what could have led someone to drive a bus into a daycare. “The motive remains incomprehensible still today,” Public Security Minister François Bonnardel told reporters in Quebec City.
Asked what authorities could have done to prevent that kind of violence, Bonnardel said “no one can predict this kind of event. No one can predict that someone gets up in the morning, takes off with a bus and decides to hit a daycare with a bus.”
Witnesses said the driver was delirious after exiting the bus, tearing off his clothes and screaming as several people restrained him on the ground before police arrived.
Neighbours have described the accused as a quiet, pleasant father of two young girls who had not shown signs of distress. Lionel Carmant, the minister responsible for social services, told reporters in Quebec City that regional health officials in Laval found no evidence the accused had received care for mental health issues or had requested help.
Laval police spokeswoman Erika Landry said police have completed their investigation at the scene, but a command post remained in place on Thursday with crisis workers to provide support to any citizens requiring it.
A candlelight vigil in memory of the victims is planned for Thursday evening at a nearby church, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scheduled to attend.
—Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press