Two children are dead and a 51-year-old man has been charged with first-degree murder after he allegedly drove a city bus into a Laval, Que., daycare on Wednesday morning, a tragedy that has left many across the country shaken.
Six more children were sent to hospital with injuries that are not considered life-threatening and one adult was admitted to hospital with shock, according to police in Laval, a city just outside Montreal. The young victims of the crash were aged four and five.
The suspect, Pierre Ny St-Amand, has also been charged with two counts of aggravated assault, and four counts of assault causing bodily harm, along with attempted murder.
Witnesses said the suspect was subdued by several bystanders after emerging from the bus yelling incoherently and removing his clothes, before being arrested by police, while multiple children remained trapped by the vehicle.
Mr. St-Amand does not have a criminal record, police said, and has worked for the Société de transport de Laval for about 10 years with no incidents of note on his file, according to Laval Mayor Stéphane Boyer.
The circumstances of the crash and any motive remain unknown, said Erika Landry, a spokesperson for the police service, in a news conference. The bus was not carrying any passengers at the time of the incident, police say.
Nawal Ghanem, a neighbour of Mr. St-Amand, said she was “shocked” to learn about the alleged attack because she had always known the man as a “good person,” who was always playing with his two young girls. Property records show that he and his common-law spouse bought their current home in Laval in 2014.
Mr. St-Amand briefly appeared by videoconference at the Laval courthouse on Wednesday afternoon. Simon Lesage, a police constable who was with him at Sacré-Coeur Hospital in Montreal during the court appearance, said a doctor asked for the accused to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at the hospital.
Constable Lesage said Mr. St-Amand hit him at the hospital right before the court appearance, and later visibly tried to grab the police officer’s phone during the hearing. Mr. St-Amand did not say a word throughout the brief proceeding and answered the judge’s questions by nodding his head.
His next court date is Feb. 17.
Aerial news footage from the scene showed a city bus that had smashed through the front of the Garderie Educative Sainte-Rose, which is located at the end of a driveway off a cul-de-sac. Laval police said they received a 911 call at about 8:30 a.m.
Hamdi Benchaabane, a neighbouring resident of the daycare, said he rushed over to the scene of the crash. He told reporters that he and three parents managed to subdue the suspect, who he said had stepped out of the bus, removed his clothing and started screaming.
“He was yelling, he didn’t stop yelling,” Mr. Benchaabane said. “The first thing he did was take off all his clothes after opening the bus door. … He was just yelling, there were no words coming out of his mouth.”
Mr. Benchaabane said he and the others had to strike the suspect to get him under control, before police arrested him. The man, he said, “was in a different world.”
Mr. Benchaabane said he was able to help pull one child from the daycare, adding that he and the others tried to save a second child before firefighters ordered them to leave because pieces of the roof were at risk of falling.
“It was a nightmare. I can’t believe it,” he said of what he witnessed. “It was horrible.”
Mr. Benchaabane’s account was corroborated by Nathalie Vaillancourt, who said her husband was another eyewitness who helped subdue the suspect.
Her husband was too upset to speak, but Ms. Vaillancourt told reporters that as he was about to drop their son at the daycare, there was a loud sound of the bus crashing into the building.
The husband helped bystanders overpower the suspect, who was agitated and half nude, Ms. Vaillancourt said. The bus smashed into a room used by the older children at the daycare, she added.
Dozens of police and emergency vehicles lined the blocked-off road leading to the daycare. Panicked parents tried to run down the road to the site, but were redirected to a nearby elementary school building that has been turned into a gathering point.
Montreal’s Sainte-Justine children’s hospital received some of the injured. The hospital said in a statement that it is “welcoming the young victims … with serious injuries requiring urgent care.”
Quebec Premier François Legault said his thoughts are with the children and their families, as well as with the employees of the daycare in Laval. “We are going to give the parents all the help we can, and as a father, I am shaken.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter that his “heart is with the people of Laval today.”
Mr. St-Amand was born in East Asia but grew up with a francophone family in a remote mining region along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, closer to Labrador than to major cities in Quebec. He was born in Cambodia, according to a St-Amand family genealogy.
He attended high school in Sept-Îles, at Polyvalente Manikoutai. In 1990, after he turned 18, he applied to change his single name of Ny to its current form, according to notices in the Quebec Official Gazette. He later moved to the Quebec City area.
With reports from Stephanie Chambers and The Canadian Press