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The driver of the minivan that crashed last Thursday, killing seven preschool-aged children, including her own son, pleaded for forgiveness and compassion yesterday.

"Tell the parents I did not want their children to die," Jeanne Auger said in a statement read by the local parish priest yesterday. "I loved them and I still love them as well as their families. . . . I fear the day I will get out of hospital, I fear the people's reaction."

The statement came as more details surfaced of the horrific accident near the tiny community of Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Nicolet. The grandmother of one of the dead children was quoted on the weekend as saying all the children were strapped in, but some were sharing seat belts.

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Annette Allard, grandmother to Stacy Roy, 2, who perished in the crash, and to four-year-old Kevin, who is still fighting for his life, told Le Journal de Montréal that her daughter had spoken to Ms. Auger, the driver of the vehicle.

"She told my daughter that they were all strapped in," Ms. Allard said in an interview published yesterday. "Some were held by the same seat belt but she was certain all were secured."

Ms. Auger, who ran the in-home daycare in nearby St-Jean-Baptiste-de-Nicolet, which the toddlers attended, said she had asked for help to transport the group before leaving on the outing because she felt she had too many youngsters to transport by herself.

"She couldn't get any."

In her statement yesterday, Ms. Auger said she found strength and courage in the battle being waged by Kevin Roy.

"I ask that you pray for me so that I can get through these six bereavements as well as the one involving my own son."

A statement released by the hospital medical co-ordinator in Trois-Rivières yesterday noted the boy experienced respiratory problems on Saturday night but that his situation was now stable. They warned that "although his condition has improved, it still remained precarious."

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The community and grieving parents seemed to rally to Ms. Auger's plea for compassion. In another statement read by Rev. Robert Richard, they said now was not the time to lay blame or to try to understand the causes of the accident. This was a time of mourning, and they urged the media and others not to blame Ms. Auger for the death of their children.

"We love Jeanne and we will do everything to help her. Please stop making her feel guilty and let her rest," Father Richard said in summarizing what he said was the feeling expressed by all the parents of the victims he had recently met. Father Richard then offered Ms. Auger the community's unconditional support.

"Allow our justice to surpass the one dictated by the legislators. We believe we cannot indefinitely dwell on the past and we must now look at what we can and what we should do now and in the future to help relieve the sufferings of those concerned and [ensure]that similar events do not occur again."

Residents in surrounding communities were invited to participate in a 24-hour silent vigil that will end at noon today when the first funeral services will be held for a few of the victims.

Simultaneous funeral services will also be held tomorrow in various towns and villages where the children lived.

In his statement yesterday, Father Richard expressed the growing uneasiness at the overwhelming presence of the media in the community, condemning the "excessive voyeurism" of some reporters.

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He asked the media to keep their distance from the families over the next few days, urging them not to take footage or pictures inside the church where the funerals will be held.

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