It was just before 8:30 a.m. Wednesday when Andre Beaudoin pulled into the parking lot to bring his two-year-old son to daycare. The Garderie Educative Ste-Rose in Laval, Que., was busy, with parents stopping to drop off their children for the day.
The sound of an engine revving was Beaudoin’s first signal that something wasn’t right. He looked up and saw a city bus barrelling down the driveway before it smashed into the front of the daycare, into the room where the oldest children — the four- and five-year-olds — gather.
What happened in the minutes and hours that followed would resonate across the country, culminating in a tragedy that left two four-year-old children dead, six children in hospital and a city bus driver with an unremarkable history facing charges of first-degree murder.
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While police are still piecing together what happened, witness accounts gathered over the two days following the accident provide a harrowing account of those first moments.
Hamdi Benchaabane, who lives next door to the daycare, quickly knew something was wrong. He’s used to watching buses slowly navigate the roundabout at the end of his dead-end street to pull up at the bus stop in front of his house. This one instead made a sharp turn into the daycare’s driveway and headed straight for the building at a speed he estimates was 30 or 40 kilometres an hour.
In the seconds following the impact, Beaudoin, Benchaabane and another parent from the parking lot, Mike Haddad, sprinted into the shattered building.
Beaudoin began pushing through concrete and debris from the walls and partly collapsed ceiling and pulling injured children from under the bus in a scene he would later describe as “the worst thing in the world.”
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Haddad and Benchaabane, meanwhile, began wrestling with the driver, who had removed his pants and was yelling incoherently. He was, as Benchaabane said, “in another world.”
Soon after, more parents and neighbours arrived — some helping to restrain the driver and others gathering the rest of the children. As pieces of the ceiling fell, Benchaabane remembers helping one child to safety. But there was at least one trapped child they couldn’t reach, he said.
The three men, who met that day for the first time, say they’ll remain haunted by what they saw. Haddad said he hears the voices of children in his head: the ones he couldn’t help, who were hurt or died.
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Police and ambulances began to arrive on the scene within minutes of the crash. Ginette Lamoureux, a neighbour who rushed over with her husband, described a scene of chaos, as children cried and a panicked mother collapsed on the floor.
The bus driver, she said, was handcuffed and dragged to the police car — naked, hysterical, his eyes “popping out of his head,” she recalled.
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At about 9:15 a.m., Genevieve Berthiaume Gagnon received a news alert on her phone about a bus crash at the daycare where she had dropped off her daughter, Chloe, an hour earlier. She left work and raced to the scene.
Only later would she realize how close her family had come to tragedy. She normally drops her two-and-a-half-year-old off with the older kids, the Papillons (Butterflies), because her daughter’s room opens later. That morning, her daughter’s room had been open, meaning she was safely away from the crash.
Police quickly blocked off Terrasse Dufferin, which became flooded with dozens of ambulances, police cars and firefighters. Some officers broke down in tears when they saw what had happened, Laval’s police chief would later say.
Two boys and two girls were taken to Montreal’s Sainte-Justine pediatric hospital, while Laval’s Cite-de-la-Sante hospital received three small patients. One of the children at Cite-de-la-Sante could not be saved, and a second four-year-old was declared dead at the crash site.
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The uninjured children in the daycare were gathered onto buses to be taken to a nearby elementary school, where educators and police officers kept them calm and entertained with games and snacks.
Panicked parents tried to run down the road to the crash site but were redirected to the school, where a crisis centre was set up.
Berthiaume Gagnon and her partner, Bruno Belzile, say the two-and-a-half-hour wait to see their daughter was agonizing. Parents were let into a room and kept updated but were told they couldn’t see their children until identities were confirmed.
The names of a couple of injured children were released to their parents, who were taken from the room. Finally, an officer came in the room and told the remaining parents, “If you’re still in this room, your kid is safe, uninjured,” Belzile recounted.
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At around noon, police confirmed the news: two children were dead, six were injured and the driver would be charged with murder. At the end of the day, Pierre Ny St-Amand said nothing, only nodding occasionally, as he appeared in court by video from his hospital room. He faces nine charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault and assault causing bodily harm.
Officials confirmed St-Amand, 51, had been a city bus driver for about a decade, had no criminal record and was not believed to have been seeking help for mental health issues. The provincial association representing private daycares confirmed the suspect had no known link to the daycare.
While the tragic events are known, officials still haven’t provided any explanation for why a man described by neighbours as pleasant and a doting father would allegedly commit such a violent act. “The motive remains incomprehensible still today,” Public Security Minister Francois Bonnardel said in Quebec City on Thursday.
— With files from Stephane Blais