Toronto’s police chief praised the city and the service for how they have handled a deadly van rampage in a statement released Thursday after he’d returned to a conference in New York.
“As the tragedy unfolded, this city banded together, volunteers flocked to help, first-responders did what they do best, and emergency medical personnel proved, once again, they are best in class,” his statement, sent by his corporate communications team, reads.
Chief Mark Saunders had been in New York on Monday when news broke that more than 20 pedestrians had been hit by a rental van in North York; an attack that killed ten and injured another 14. He flew back that night to give a news conference at the scene, alongside Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
At a second media update on Tuesday, the chief acknowledged that because he’d just landed, he hadn’t fully appreciated the carnage that citizens had to witness.
He was absent on Wednesday when Deputy Chief Peter Yuen held a news conference in praise of Constable Ken Lam, the TPS officer who managed to take down the suspect in the van attack – a man who mimicked having a gun and yelled for the officer to kill him – without any force.
On Thursday, the service confirmed that Chief Saunders had returned to New York, but would not offer details on what conference he was attending, or why he chose to return.
“I know that he had just arrived in New York when he learned of the incident. He made plans immediately to return, leaving family and staff behind,” spokesperson Meaghan Gray said in an e-mail Thursday night of his trip back to Toronto.
When asked if she would say what day he’d returned to the conference after the attack, or why she would not name the conference, Ms. Gray said “no.”
Police attendance at conferences is reported in police services board agenda documents.
Last April, Chief Saunders attended The Leadership in Counter-Terrorism Conference in New York City, agenda documents from November show.
The organization is holding a conference this week in New York. Chief Saunders is on the executive of the organization.
“I don’t know what the chief is doing or what his schedule’s like,” Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack said Thursday evening. “I’m just here dealing with our members, and that’s our priority − to make sure that they’re taken care of, and dealing with all the issues around the fallout, and what they’ve seen and experienced. It’s unprecedented.”
Don Peat, spokesperson for Mr. Tory, said: “The mayor and the chief have been in communication repeatedly since Monday’s terrible attack. The chief has assured the mayor since the beginning of these horrific events that all necessary resources are being applied to ensure a full and complete investigation of this tragedy.”
Alek Minassian, 25, of Richmond Hill, has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. Toronto Police said they are expecting to lay a 14th charge of attempted murder.
Three days after the attack, more details about victims emerged. In messages to The Globe and Mail, friends identified So He Chung, 22, as one of the deceased.
“We were a close-knit group of work friends,” one young woman said in a message. “I’m still in shock about the whole situation.”
A graduate of Loretto Abbey Catholic Secondary School, she went on to study at the University of Toronto and worked as a sales specialist at Holt Renfrew, according to her LinkedIn profile.
“We are deeply saddened that a member of our community has died as a result of this terrible incident,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “This attack has touched the lives of so many people, here and around the globe. We want them to know they are in our thoughts.”
By Thursday afternoon, a total of eight people injured in the van attack remained in Sunnybrook Hospital, including five in critical condition and three in serious condition. Another was in stable condition at North York General Hospital, and two more were in stable condition at St. Michael’s Hospital, according to media spokespeople at the institutions.
The makeshift memorial to those who lost their lives in the incident continued to grow Thursday as bouquets, candles and written notes were added. The messages, penned in numerous languages, included the sentiments “rest in peace” and “spread love, not hate.”
Kristi Wing was one of the many people to come by the memorial. She works in the area and had seen paramedics treating patients and covering those who were beyond help in the moments after Monday’s attack. The tragedy feels more real now that victims’ personal stories are coming to light, she said.
“I saw bodies and now there are names and faces to them,” she said.
With reports from Ann Hui, Wendy Stueck, Jeff Gray and The Canadian Press