'We all suffered through this': How the van attack brought a deeper 'sense of connection' to Yonge Street

Almost immediately after the Toronto van attack, businesses were forced to return to normal. Months later, some say a deeper sense of community has taken root because of the shared experience, the grief and the desire to heal.

'I'm just a regular guy who happened to be at that scene and had to help,' eyewitness says

It took Leola Pon one week before she could return to the Yonge Street sidewalk outside her building. She said the shared grief and necessity to go back to a routine has brought her community closer. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

It was a stretch of Yonge Street that was largely nondescript before April 23 — a dozen blocks of retail shops, office towers, condo buildings, and a transit hub.

"I've been here for 10 years but there was no real sense of community," said Patrice Alexander, owner of Forum Barber Parlour.

"You see people, you see faces, 30, 40, 50 times, and you don't say anything to them."

For an in-depth look at the van attack and its devastating impact on Yonge Street, check out this CBC interactive feature: 

That all changed shortly before 1:30 p.m. that day, when the driver of a white rental van began deliberately hitting pedestrians on Yonge Street between Finch and Sheppard avenues. Sixteen people were injured and 10 people were killed.

The man alleged to have been behind the wheel that day, Alek Minassian, is scheduled to appear in court Friday. He's charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.

In the face of the tragedy, day-to-day business on that strip of Yonge Street was forced to return to normal almost immediately. Months later, some say a deeper sense of community has taken root because of the shared trauma and the necessity to move forward.

Patrice Alexander trims the beard of a client at his shop, Forum Barber Parlour, on Yonge Street, south of Finch Avenue. The van attack happened right across the street from his shop. (Michael Cole/CBC)

"Now I see someone once or twice I make sure I introduce myself, find out what their names are, what businesses they own," said Alexander.

"We've actually become pretty close since the van attack," he said of his neighbours on the strip.

"I guess we should have been speaking a lot sooner."

Despite the renewed sense of community and the passage of time, the scars are deep and still healing for many who live or work in the neighbourhood.

Return to normalcy

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Tanya Kolenko administered CPR on at least five people, including one woman who died in her arms.

"I went into a mode that I didn't even know was in me. I had never experienced something like this before," said Kolenko.

Kolenko was working at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) building that day on Yonge street. She said she's found healing through talking to her coworkers.

"We speak about what they witnessed and experienced. I personally don't think anybody recovers from that 100 per cent," said Kolenko.

Robert Little, left, and Tanya Kolenko both sprung into action in the immediate aftermath of the attack, performing CPR on victims. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The experience brought her closer to others — like her coworker Robert Little. That day, she says, she grabbed him by the wrist and together they helped triage the injured.

The images from that day are still ingrained in Little's mind. He is now receiving professional counselling to cope with the memories.

"Part of me feels [the attack] came and took away a little bit of me that I'm used to. The nicety of everything."

But Little says the reaction of those around him that day — how quickly people responded and how they came together — made him feel more connected to his community.

"These buildings around me, they all contain people who were out there that day trying to do something," said Little.

"I am one person but there are many other people around here that are willing to do the exact same thing I did."

The help of strangers

Abdellah Massaoudi saw the white van racing down Yonge Street that day as he left his Government of Canada offices near Yonge and Sheppard.

He saw a woman lying on the ground whose legs were crushed.  He heard someone shout, "Belt, belt, belt." and pulled his off so someone could make a tourniquet for her.

He also rushed to help another victim who was going in and out of consciousness just metres away.

"I think I'm just a regular guy who happened to be at that scene and had to help," he said.

"Every time I tell other people, 'If you were in the same situation as me, you'd do the same or much better than me.'"

Massaoudi says the attack changed the relationships in his life — with his family, his co-workers and his community.

Abdellah Massaoudi says he was no more a hero that day than anyone else would be. 'If you were in the same situation as me you'd do the same or much better than me,' he tells friends and neighbours. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"It helped me a lot to see life from different angles. To be more positive ... to consider all the people in this community as my sisters and my brothers."

For many in the community, the hardest part was in the days that followed — returning to a daily routine after what had happened.

"The job still exists; our work still exists; the traffic still exists. Everything kind of slowly got back to normal." said Leola Pon, general counsel at the TDSB. She was among those who rushed through the doors of the building after hearing what unfolded on the sidewalk below.

"We were all strangers, but at the same time we had something in common. All of us were dealing with some sort of tragedy on different levels."

Pon agrees there's a sense of closeness in the neighbourhood that didn't exist before April 23.

Leola Pon: 'These are all strangers that are coming together through a common bond, which was tragedy.' (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"We feel a deep sense of connection because we all suffered through this"

Struggling to find answers

In the days, weeks and months that followed the van attack, Reverend Sean Huh from the Faith Church on Olive Avenue listened to the stories told by members of the community.

He says countless people approached him telling them they couldn't even return to the strip where it happened.

"They said when they physically approached that strip of Yonge Street they would feel something, and they couldn't walk down it so they would go to the side streets," Huh said.

He says many people in the community are still struggling, asking questions  and he can't always provide the answers.

"I just sit there and listen to their complaints. Listen to their anger and confusion. I think right now, more than anything, people want to talk. People want to talk about their questions."

Reverend Sean Huh has struggled to comfort those seeking answers after the van attack, but says the community has become stronger. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Huh says given the proximity to major subway stations, many thought of the area as transient  a place where people move through on the way to somewhere else without looking around.

"But I think they learned that people seem to be more open to wanting to connect with other people," he said.

"I think [the incident] brought people together. I guess the best thing I learned is we're open to being in people's lives."