Police say Amqui, Que., crash was deliberate, victims chosen at random
Amqui resident Steeve Gagnon, 38, charged with dangerous driving causing death
The driver of a pickup truck that slammed into a group of pedestrians in Amqui, Que., on Monday afternoon did so intentionally but chose his victims at random, the police said.
Provincial police have identified Steeve Gagnon, 38, of Amqui, as the driver.
Gagnon turned himself in, was arrested and has been charged with two counts of dangerous driving causing death, with more charges expected in the future, according to the Crown.
Officers held Gagnon's arms as they walked him into the Amqui courthouse on Tuesday afternoon. He wore a grey T-shirt and glasses.
Outside, a group of Amqui residents gathered. They hurled insults at him and booed as he made the short walk from a police car to the courthouse. He appeared to smirk at the crowd, which outraged them. "He's smiling," one man remarked in disbelief.
In the courtroom, Gagnon entered no plea. His next court appearance is April 5. He will remain in custody.
Gérald Charest, 65, and Jean Lafrenière, 73, were killed and nine others were injured in the incident.
Claude Doiron, a spokesperson for the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), Quebec's provincial police force, said investigators believe Gagnon planned the act and did it deliberately, but chose his victims at random. Officers are treating the incident as a murder investigation, Doiron said.
Gagnon is co-operating with investigators, he added.
In 2006, Gagnon pleaded guilty to driving with a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit. He was fined $600.
Of the nine surviving victims, three suffered serious injuries and are in critical condition and six others were being evaluated for non-life-threatening injuries, according to the SQ.
Six victims, including a baby and a toddler, were transferred by plane to the Hôpital de l'Enfant-Jésus trauma unit in Quebec City. They are both in stable condition, the CHU de Québec confirmed. Three adults remain in critical condition.
One victim is under observation at the Amqui hospital.
'He smashed everyone who was on the sidewalk'
The Lower Saint-Lawence health and social services authority (CISSS) says it has deployed 10 psychosocial workers to help the relatives of the victims.
Witnesses described how, shortly after 3 p.m. on Monday, a pickup truck drove up onto the sidewalk in front of the Captive microbrewery on Saint-Benoît Boulevard, accelerating toward pedestrians.
The road is part of Highway 132, the principal route along the St. Lawrence and east around the Gaspé peninsula. It is the main street of many small towns.
Ken Moreau, an Amqui resident, was walking on the sidewalk at the time and heard a loud noise behind him.
He turned and saw a pickup truck heading straight for him, accelerating, he said, as it raced down the sidewalk.
"I saw everything. I was just in front of the first people who were hit," he said.
Moreau managed to dive behind a lamppost, but others weren't able to react as quickly.
"I just had the time to jump to safety, and he smashed everyone who was on the sidewalk," he said. "People didn't have time. The man right in front of me didn't have a chance. We turned at the same time, both of us, and he was hit. I think that man died.
Looking at the scene on Tuesday, Daniel Thériault, a resident, recalled the two men who were killed.
Thériault knew Charest and Lafrenière for 30 years and says they were known for taking walks around the community of 6,000. He said it's a "nightmare" for the victims' families.
"I am very angry," said Thériault. "There's a shock because we often take a walk on this boulevard."
Although he was not at the scene of the crash, Thériault, who is a paramedic with 27 years of experience, said he received a call about an hour later informing him of the crash.
"We don't often know this kind of tragedy. It's a first time," said Thériault. "I know these people ... It's difficult to speak of him. They are so gentle, a good friend."
He invited the town to take part in the mass at the Saint-Benoît-Joseph-Labre Church in Amqui on Friday at 7 p.m. to commemorate the victims. Until then, church bells will ring each day at 3:10 p.m., the time at which pedestrians were struck.
"For our community, it's sad and shocking," said Kindé Cosme Arouko, a priest who was also at the scene on Tuesday. "We can offer moral support and spiritual support."
Gilles Turmel, a spokesperson for the CISSS, confirmed three of the injured have been released from the hospital in Amqui. He said a code orange was launched due to multiple casualties.
He added that psychological assistance was offered to witnesses yesterday, and will be available again today and for the weeks to come.
The SQ says major crimes units across the province have sent several dozen police officers to investigate.
Highway 132 remains closed in both directions this morning in Amqui. A bypass route has been set up for motorists.
Politicians were at the scene on Tuesday. They offered support and urged those affected by the incident to reach out for help by dialling 811, the provincial health assistance line, and selecting option two.
"All those who were witnesses of this tragedy or people who were affected or hurt, don't hesitate to seek help," said Sylvie Blanchette, the mayor of Amqui. "We're all going to need it, so don't hesitate."
Quebec Public Security Minister François Bonnardel described the incident as a killing spree and likened it to the incident in Laval last month, when police say a man deliberately drove a city bus into a daycare centre, killing two children.
Bonnardel warned against making assumptions about the mental state of the suspect in the Amqui incident, but he also expressed frustration about how to stop similar incidents from happening again.
"We can put everything into place," he said, "and tomorrow morning someone can decide to get in a truck and hit (people)."
At a news conference Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked the first responders who attended to the victims and said his thoughts were with families in Amqui.
"This tragedy has devastated us all across Quebec and Canada," he said. "We will continue to be there to support that community in the very difficult days to come."
With files from Lauren McCallum, Émilie Vallières, The Canadian Press and Radio-Canada