So Ra

So Ra

‘I just loved her more than myself’

University of Toronto students So Ra and Sohe Chung were crossing Finch Avenue on their way to the North York Central Library when the van hit them.

When So Ra woke up on the pavement, she didn’t understand what had occurred. She wondered: Had there been a gun attack? Was there an explosion?

Looking over, So Ra saw Chung beside her, unconscious. So Ra scanned her friend’s face and body for injuries and was relieved — she appeared to have survived. It wasn’t until five days later, while So Ra was recovering in hospital, that she learned her best friend had in fact died.

The two Korean women, both 22, were studying human biology. They met at school in their first year, bonded during karaoke nights and became best friends.

“Her presence was just so precious,” said So Ra. “I just loved her more than myself.”

So Ra herself suffered major facial injuries, including a broken jaw and a shattered cheekbone. She has no fewer than 10 metal plates in her face. And then there’s the guilt — of having survived, of having been unable to do more to help her friend in those crucial moments after the attack.

“I can never get over it,” said So Ra. “I know that I will have to carry this pain for my entire life because Sohe is a part of me now.”

Sean Huh

Sean Huh

‘People seem to be more open now’

Pastor Sean Huh is used to comforting people in a time of grief. But he said the aftermath of the Yonge Street attack was different.

His parish is on nearby Olive Avenue, and in the days afterward, the Faith Church became a place where people went to pray and make sense of what happened.

Huh encouraged people to talk about the incident, but said many struggled to even return to the area. “I can’t tell you how many people actually said they were avoiding that strip of Yonge Street,” he said. “They couldn’t walk down it. So they would go to the side streets.”

Huh reassured them that this feeling was normal, but that they didn’t have to experience it alone. “Let people surround you, let them be like a shield for you, as you walk down Yonge Street,” is what he told people.

Months later, community members are still searching for comfort. Huh doesn’t always have an answer for them, but one thing is clear — the event spurred them to reflect on their relationships with fellow residents.

“We were not as close as we thought we were… You never really thought about other people on the street or in our neighbourhood before,” he said. “People seem to be more open now, wanting to connect with other people.”

Catherine Riddell

Catherine Riddell

‘There is just no memory at all’

Catherine Riddell, 67, was struck from behind, and when she thinks back to that moment, she actually draws a blank.

“There is just no memory at all,” she said. “It is an empty void.”

But the pain is real. Riddell, who was legally blind before the incident, said she can’t even count the number of fractures she suffered — her spine, shoulder blade, ribs and pelvis were all affected.

The first two weeks in hospital were a blur, marked by confusion. Lying in bed, Riddell kept apologizing to her family. She thought her injuries were her own fault, for not crossing the street properly.

“I couldn't register [what had happened] for the longest time, because it didn’t make sense.”

Riddell was in hospital for two months. It took her a month after coming home to feel comfortable enough to walk alone again on Yonge Street. One night, she returned to the spot where she was hit, expecting to remember something. She didn’t feel a thing.

She understands the enormity of what happened, but she’s actually happy she can’t remember it.

“I feel like I’m at an advantage because I don’t have any memories.”

Beverly Smith

Beverly Smith

‘I didn’t deserve this’

Beverly Smith is a retired librarian and an avid reader. For years, she would walk to the North York Central Library every day to check out new reading material.

April 23 was no different. She was near Empress Avenue when she was hit by the van. Smith was rushed to the hospital and was immediately taken into an operating room. Her legs were so badly crushed that doctors determined they had to be amputated.

The 81-year-old is recovering at a rehabilitation hospital in Toronto’s east end. She’s healing physically, but she still struggles with why this happened to her. “I didn’t deserve this,” she said.

For the longest time, she lived in denial.

“I decided that it didn’t really happen to me,” she said. “That is how I coped.”

Despite losing her independence, Smith is looking forward to a brighter future, with her family by her side.

“Even though I’m almost 82, I’ve still got time to live and enjoy life, with my children and my grandchildren,” she said. “I’m a victim, but I’m also a survivor. I will get through this.”

Sohe Chung

Abdellah Massaoudi

‘You need to help people, because people are dying’

Abdellah Massaoudi describes what he saw that day as a “war zone.” It was hard to make sense of what he was looking at. He just reacted instinctively.

“You don't have time to think about it. You need to help people, because people are dying.”

The 49-year-old heard someone yelling, “Belt, belt, belt!” Initially stunned, he looked down at his waist, pulled off his belt and handed it to a man who made a tourniquet around the leg of Beverly Smith.

Then, Massaoudi spotted a young woman lying on the ground, alone. He ran to her side, checked her pulse and knew she was still alive. He began speaking to her, and didn't stop until she started opening her eyes.

He waited with her until paramedics arrived. That woman was Samantha Peart, and Massaoudi said her mother has since called him to thank him for what he did that day.

Massaoudi downplays his heroism and insists he could have done more.

“I think I'm just a regular guy who happened to be at that scene and had to help,” he said.

Whenever he tells the story he says, “if you were in the same situation as me, you'd do the same or much better than me.”

Tanya Kolenko

Tanya Kolenko

‘I went into a mode that I didn’t even know was in me’

Tanya Kolenko relives that day constantly in her mind, but chooses her words carefully when talking about it. In fact, she relies on a script, of sorts.

Immediately after the attack happened, Kolenko, who works in the security department at the Toronto District School Board building on Yonge Street, grabbed the wrist of a colleague and ran out the door with a defibrillator. Once outside, she was struck by the horror of the situation.

“I was shocked to see so many people lying across the sidewalk, in front of the building,” she said, reading from prepared notes.

Kolenko has first aid training and got to work tending to the injured. While people ran toward her asking for help, her attention at first was focused on one severely injured woman whose chest had collapsed. Kolenko started compressions and tried to comfort her, but despite Kolenko's best efforts, the woman died.

Kolenko said her training couldn’t have prepared her for what she did that day.

“I went into a mode that I didn’t even know was in me. I had never experienced something like this before,” she said. “I was overwhelmed.”

Leola Pon

Leola Pon

‘I was focusing on how people were coping’

Leola Pon didn’t expect to confront her existing post-traumatic stress when she walked outside her office that day.

Eight years ago, Pon was hit by a car from behind while crossing a street close to her home in Toronto's east end. She wasn’t seriously injured, but she now lives with the PTSD, which is triggered when she sees cars behaving erratically.

“It was starting to get under control,” said Pon. The van attack “brought it back up again.”

Pon didn’t see the van itself, but like many others who work at the Toronto District School Board building, she rushed outside after the attack to do what she could to help. What she provided wasn’t first aid, but psychological support that she learned from her own experience with trauma.

“I was focusing on how people were coping,” said Pon, who ended up comforting a number of injured people. “I was more concerned about them getting impacted, maybe similar to me [eight years ago], and not being able to handle it.”

The incident had the effect of intensifying Pon’s own PTSD: She said she now has constant visions of the white van.