Toronto van attack survivors struggle to rebuild lives

The Toronto van attack lasted a few minutes, but it altered the course of its victims' lives forever. This week marks new beginnings for two of them - So Ra, who lost her best friend and suffered severe injuries, and Beverly Smith, who is struggling to rebuild her life after losing her legs.

As Alek Minassian prepares for 3rd court appearance, victims open up about attack and recovery

Toronto van attack survivor Beverly Smith, who is still in hospital recovering, is working to rebuild her life after losing both her legs and suffering trauma that has made it difficult for the former librarian to even read a book. (Albert Leung/CBC)

If things had gone differently on April 23, Toronto resident Beverly Smith would have ended up at the library. So Ra would have as well. 

So Ra, 22, spent the morning with her roommate, Sohe Chung. The University of Toronto students, both human biology majors, were prepping for an anatomy exam.

They tucked their hair into ballcaps and headed down Yonge Street toward the North York Central Library. They wanted to do some banking, and they chose to walk instead of taking the subway, because it was so sunny and warm.

It was the first nice day of spring, and they wanted to enjoy it.

Smith, 81, a voracious reader and former librarian, was also headed to the library to pick up a book she had on hold. It wasn't unusual for her to walk to the library and do some errands on such a nice day, since her condo was close by.

Neither So nor Smith made it to their destination that day. Instead, the two women — who have never met — ended up being rushed to Sunnybrook Hospital after they were run down by a man who drove a rental van onto the sidewalk, killing 10 people.

This week, the alleged attacker, Alek Minassian, is slated to appear in court. Minassian is charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.

This week also marks new beginnings for So and Smith. The incident lasted about seven minutes, but it altered the course of both women's lives forever.

  • WATCH: The National's feature on the survivors of the Toronto van attack tonight on CBC Television at 10 p.m. ET and streamed online.
The rented van used in the attack on pedestrians is guarded by police on a sidewalk in northern Toronto on April 23. (Warren Toda/EFE/EPA)

So Ra

So remembers leaving the bank with Chung. She doesn't remember hearing the van behind her. 

After she was hit, she woke up confused. She was lying on the pavement, covered in blood and in a lot of pain. She remembers thinking: "What happened here?"

"There were people lying on the ground, and there was blood everywhere on my body, and I felt severe pain around my face," she said.

So Ra lost her best friend, Sohe Chung, in the Toronto van attack. She herself sustained extensive injuries. (Albert Leung/CBC)

"I was figuring out: Is this a car accident? Or is this a terror [attack]? Or were people shot by a gun? Or was there an explosion?"

She realized she was no longer wearing her baseball hat and remembers looking over at her friend and thinking Chung was OK.

"My cap was gone, but she was wearing her cap," So said. "And her clothes, and her face, everything seemed so fine. But she was just unconscious, so I thought … it's just taking a bit of more time for her to wake up."

Beverly Smith

Smith said she has no memories of anything that happened after she headed to the library.

But the memories are vivid for her children. After seeing the news of the attack on TV, Michael Smith started calling his mother. When she didn't answer, he had someone in her condominium building try to check on her.

His sister, Allyson Copsey, a teacher in York Region, saw at the end of the school day that she had many missed calls from her brother.

Toronto van attack survivor Smith has no memory of being struck by the van as she strolled on the sidewalk. (Albert Leung/CBC)

"I just picked up the phone, and he said, 'Have you seen what's been going on on TV?' And I'm like, 'No.' So he explained the whole situation. And I just said, 'OK, well, what are the chances?'"

As it turns out, the chances were all too real. That evening, police officers arrived at Michael Smith's front door to tell him his mother had been hit and rushed to hospital.

"She was so beaten up — her eyes were, like, completely closed," he said. "And then they told me that her legs had been amputated. And I just started screaming … It was horrible. Horrible."

A friend lost

So's biggest struggle has been the grief of losing her best friend. She had trouble even thinking about her friend at first because the loss was so devastating. 

"It was just so sad and depressing in the beginning. But what the doctor said was now all the good memories may seem only sad to me right now, because I'm grieving," she says. "But if I keep grieving, I'll be able to think of the good memories."

So says she feels a sense of guilt that she was not able to help her best friend in some way after they were struck by the van. (Albert Leung/CBC)

Good memories include belting out Korean songs at karaoke with her friend when they were feeling the stress of school.

So says she also struggled with guilt. She worried there was something she could have done to help her friend that afternoon.

"After the accident and while I was recovering, I just kept getting the thought, 'What if I actually got over to her and if I tried to wake her up or shook her, then would she have survived?'"

Moving forward

September marks new beginnings for both So and Smith.

Both women have been profoundly changed by the events that interrupted a simple trip to the library. So lost a study partner and a dear friend. Smith lost her legs and now struggles to finish books she once breezed through.
 
So is heading back to U of T. This semester, she will be taking biochemistry, biology and an elective. It will be the first time she will go to classes without Chung.

So is returning to her biochemistry and biology studies at the University of Toronto this semester. (Albert Leung/CBC)

Meanwhile, Smith is preparing to spend her first night out of hospital since April 23. Her family expects she will be released from the Bridgepoint Active Healthcare rehabilitation centre on Sept. 13. They are anxious about all of the new challenges her release will bring.

In addition to the physical challenges, Smith has been working with a speech therapist to improve her reading comprehension. It's a place she'd never thought she'd be — reading books and writing summaries of chapters she's read in order to discuss them with a therapist.

"I used to read all the time. In fact, I had 10 books selected to bring to [Bridgepoint]. I bought them, and they went home because I couldn't read a book," she said. "I'm just now starting to read again."


  • WATCH: The National's feature on the survivors of the Toronto van attack
Two survivors of the Toronto van attack opened up to CBC News as they work through their recovery — they told CBC's Ioanna Roumelioitis they are still trying to deal with the physical and psychological scars from that attack. 11:52

About the Author

Melissa Mancini

Melissa Mancini is an associate producer with The National.