It was just before one-thirty, April 23, 2018, a sunny afternoon in the North York city centre business district in Toronto, Ont., when the first 911 call came in – a motor vehicle accident with pedestrian injury.
Toronto Fire Services was immediately dispatched to the scene. The first truck arrived within three minutes. Upon arrival, though it became clear the incident was much more serious.
A rented van had been driven along a roughly two-kilometre stretch of Yonge Street from Finch to Sheppard avenues, deliberately targeting pedestrians on sidewalks, killing 10 and injuring 16.
Eventually, the damaged van stopped on the north sidewalk on Poyntz Avenue. And, in a dramatic scene that was captured on video, the suspect is seen pointing a dark-coloured object toward Toronto Police Const. Ken Lam who’d arrived at the scene. The man demands he be shot in the head but the officer, realizing the man didn’t have a gun, holsters his pistol.
The man is seen dropping the object from his hand, lays down on the ground and surrenders to Lam.
The arrest was made just seven minutes after the first 911 call reporting the incident was made.
It turned out to be the deadliest vehicle-ramming attack in Canadian history.
Toronto Fire Services Chief Matt Pegg spoke about the dramatic incident, the fire department’s response to it, and how it impacted firefighters at the 2019 conference of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs held at The International Centre in Mississauga, Ont., in May.
He also talked about the shootings that occurred July 22 the same year along Danforth Avenue in the Greektown neighbourhood of Toronto when a man killed two people and wounded 13 using a semi-automatic pistol, then committed suicide after a shootout with police.
Pegg was one of the keynote speakers at the conference. He spoke for roughly an hour and gave the audience some insight into the fire department’s role in the aftermath. He also shared his thoughts on what fire chiefs should do to prepare for such incidents.
There was a “palpable sense of horror and shock” after the van attack, he noted. “People were in disbelief. There was an overwhelming sense of evil.”
Pegg said the attack was something that was very difficult for him personally, and the firefighters on scene, because it was so different from events they’d responded to before.
“It’s very different from a normal, traumatic event.”
Some of the firefighters who were at the scene are still dealing with the aftereffects, he noted.
Pegg showed video of the van attack arrest. It showed the man pointing an object at the police officer. The man continually says, “Shoot me in the head.”
The police officer shouts, “Get down,” at the man several times and he eventually lies on the ground where he is handcuffed by the officer.
“I’m not sure any of us will see any more profound act of bravery,” Pegg said of the police officer.
He said the area where the attack took place is a busy place and an urban environment, but it looked very different after the incident, with the injured and dying everywhere along the route.
“There were more Toronto police officers there than I’ve seen at anything,” he said.
Pegg also spoke about the bravery of firefighters who responded to the incident, as they didn’t know the attacker had been arrested.
He was at headquarters when the incident happened. After he learned numerous pedestrians had been struck, he headed to the scene.
Pegg said it was something he never thought he’d see in Toronto. About 20 fire trucks were deployed over an extensive stretch of Yonge Street.
Afterwards, he said, the city came together and a vigil led by community faith leaders was held for the victims. Pegg attended and said he distinctly remembers there was no political messaging.
“It was all about the community.”
Just several months later, the shootings occurred in the epicentre of Greektown.
The fire department received a call shortly after 10 p.m. that night, said Pegg, and the first fire truck arrived four minutes later.
A man had walked along Danforth, randomly shooting pedestrians before opening fire on crowded restaurants. He was engaged by police and eventually found deceased.
Pegg said some firefighters were on their hands and knees trying to save someone’s life while shots were being fired.
“They were literally in the middle of that scene.”
He said there were many lessons to be learned from both events, one being that fire chiefs need to work hard to make sure that officers on every truck are prepared to deal with a tragedy, and also ensure that their crews have the tools they need to handle such situations.
When such tragedies occur, said Pegg, it’s also important for fire chiefs to get to a safe place so they can be in a position to oversee the situation.
Another consideration, he noted, is to determine who is going to deal with the media. After the van attack, the police chief did the briefing but Pegg, Toronto Mayor John Tory and a representative from the paramedic service were also present.
Pegg said it’s also important for fire chiefs to understand the functions of other first responders and establish relationships with the chief of police and paramedics in advance of such incidents.
“We all have a job to do and there can not be any friction.”
Pegg said fire chiefs should be prepared to leave the command post at times when police might be discussing sensitive information and there is good reason for that because everybody privy to that information could be compelled to present testimony later in court proceedings.
An often-overlooked issue with such tragedies, though, he said, is that firefighters are left to deal with stresses on their own.
He said post-traumatic stress is absolutely real and he’s now on a mission to make discussion around mental health safe.
“In our organization, it is okay not to be okay” and to talk about the aftereffects from a traumatic event, he said. “Mental illness is a sickness not a weakness. Join with me in taking that message back and driving the transformation in our business.”
There is an impact on firefighters from responding to such calls and departments have to have that conversation, he said.
“Do what you can do in your organization to make it safe. People need to know they can come back from something like this and it’s okay.”
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