By Michelle McQuigge and Liam Casey, The Canadian Press
TORONTO — The death toll rose to at least 10 late Monday following a “horrific attack” in which a young man drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians along a stretch of one of Toronto’s busiest streets, authorities said.
The federal public safety minister said the incident, which also left 15 people injured, did not appear to be connected in any way to national security. However, the city’s police Chief Mark Saunders said investigators would be exploring all avenues.
“The actions definitely look deliberate,” Saunders said.
The suspect was identified as Alek Minassian, 25, of Richmond Hill, Ont., and authorities said he was not known to police.
“We are looking very strongly to what the exact motivation was for this particular incident to take place,” Saunders said. “We need every single piece of this puzzle so we can have a fulsome picture and account as to exactly what took place here.”
The incident occurred at 1:30 p.m. when police said they started receiving calls about a white van mounting a sidewalk along a stretch of Yonge Street — between Finch Avenue and Sheppard Avenue — and hitting pedestrians.
Phil Zullo said he was driving north on Yonge Street when he saw police chasing a vehicle. Moments later he said he realized why.
“I must have seen about five, six people being resuscitated by bystanders and by ambulance drivers,” Zullo said. “It was awful. Brutal. Just people everywhere. People — shoes and shirts and ball caps on the floor, and some of the bodies were completely covered by blankets.”
Kasra Ibrahimi said he saw the van on the sidewalk and heard people yelling and screaming as it plowed ahead.
“It was like a movie scene. It hit people, and they were like flying in the air,” he said. “After like two minutes, five minutes, the ambulance and police came, and they started emergency procedures … I saw they were dead.”
Police did not provide details of the suspect’s arrest but videos posted on social media showed a young man standing by the open door of a white Ryder rental van holding a dark object in his hand and pointing it at an armed police officer just metres away.
“Shoot me,” the man is heard saying on the video, as the officer repeatedly asks him to get down. “I have a gun in my pocket,” the man says.
Other videos show the man on the ground, being handcuffed. The unidentified police officer was praised online for the way he handled the situation.
“A complete display of experience, composure, and professionalism; a true Canadian hero,” read one Tweet about the officer.
Saunders also praised the officer, saying he “did a fantastic job,” and noted that there was nothing to indicate the suspect had a gun at the time.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who was in Toronto on Monday attending a meeting of the G7 foreign ministers and security officials, said the incident did not appear to present a national threat.
“The events that happened on the street behind us are horrendous but they do not appear to be connected in any way to national security, based on the information available at this time,” he told an evening news conference near the site of the incident.
“Grateful for the brave and professional response of @TorontoPolice and other first responders to the horrific attack at Yonge and Finch,” he tweeted earlier in the day. “Canadians are appalled at what happened. The victims and their families have our deepest condolences.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city was setting up a hotline to offer support to those affected and another one for witnesses who could help with the police investigation.
“This is a time when this community should come together,” he said. “These are not the kinds of things that we expect to happen in this city. We hope they don’t happen anywhere in the world, but we especially don’t expect them to happen in Toronto.”
Toronto Paramedic Services said the injured were transported to various hospitals in the city, including Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, which reported that two of the 10 patients transported to their emergency rooms were pronounced dead on arrival. The hospital said five patients remained in critical condition and three were in serious condition.
A Sunnybrook official said hospital officials were still identifying the victims and contacting their families.
Near the crash scene, dozens of people stood in silence Monday afternoon as a police helicopter hovered overhead. A section of Yonge Street will remain closed for several days as officers conduct what they expect to be a long and complex investigation, police said.
Dainis Cevers said he was driving to pick up a relative at a nearby church when the alleged perpetrator cut in front of him, hit a pedestrian and accelerated.
“The guy flew up all the way to the end of that sidewalk…about five or six metres,” Cevers said.
Restaurant manager Noorani Barsat said he raced outside after hearing a commotion to find a badly injured man lying nearby.
“I just ran over there, brought water and a towel to that injured man, but he was unconscious,” Barsat said, adding first responders took about 20 minutes to reach the scene.
The head of the Toronto Police Association said they were bringing in counsellors to assist officers who responded to the incident.
“Nobody’s seen anything like this. I’ve been in policing for 30 years we’ve never seen this and again, unfortunately, this is the new world order and we’re very concerned about it,” Mike McCormack said.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said all levels of government and law enforcement were working together to deal with the situation.
“I think we are all unsettled and very disturbed by a situation like this. I think it’s impossible not to be,” she said. “It’s frightening and we have to rely on the people who are trained, who can make sure that information is available as it needs to be and that the precautionary measures are taken here in the city and around the province.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several provincial politicians also offered sympathies to those affected by the incident and their loved ones.
By evening, people had started placing signs and flowers near the scene of the crash.
The city’s hockey team held a moment of silence Monday night before their playoff game in honour of those affected by the deadly incident.
The starting lineups of the Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins stood on their blue lines while the Air Canada Centre crowd stood in silence as a photo of Toronto’s skyline flashed on the scoreboard. The American and Canadian anthems were then sung, with singer Martina Ortiz-Luis dropping her microphone and letting the crowd take over the lyrics of O Canada during the second verse.
— With files from Nicole Thompson, Maija Kappler, Tara Deschamps and Salmaan Farooqui
Editors note: A previous version of this story spelt the suspects name with an ‘x’ which Toronto police later corrected it to be spelt with a ‘k’.