The general counsel of the Toronto District School Board says she is concerned about her colleagues who witnessed the aftermath when the driver of a white Ryder rental van ran down pedestrians out walking on Yonge Street in Toronto Monday between Finch Avenue and Sheppard Avenue.
“I’m just really worried about my colleagues who witnessed it or tried to help or who are just traumatized by the impact of the situation,” says Leola Pon, general counsel of the TDSB.
The accused driver of the van, Alek Minassian, 25, has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder.
With its corporate head offices located at 5050 Yonge Street, just north of Sheppard Avenue on the west side, being very close to the devastation, Pon found herself rushing to the scene to help along with other colleagues.
Pon was in a meeting with TDSB operations staff around 1:20 p.m. when she started to hear sirens.
“We hear sirens up here all the time, so [I] didn’t think anything of it initially. Then we kept on hearing it and people started saying it was odd that the sirens were non-stop. Some of the staff who were closer to the window looked out but couldn’t really see anything,” says Pon, who was working remotely today as the TDSB building, like many others on that stretch of Yonge Street, were closed today.
Pon looked at her Twitter account feed and saw a CP24 television tweet that a van had hit eight to 10 pedestrians at Yonge and Finch.
“I interrupted the speaker in our meeting and told everyone what was going on,” she recalls. “Going through my Twitter feed I noticed some had already posted some pretty gruesome photos. I said ‘Oh, my god.’ Then we all just left the room and started running out to see what was going on.”
Downstairs, Pon saw a TDSB staff member rushing out with a box of gloves down the front steps of the school board’s corporate offices. She then saw some of the witnesses sitting stunned on the sidewalk and approached to offer help.
“I saw a woman on her cellphone crying. She had coffee stains on her white blouse and was shaking,” she says. “There was a TTC bus parked right in front of us and people were sitting there gathered.”
At that point, Pon says, the scene was somewhat chaotic.
“Someone told me it was a terrorist attack involving 40 to 50 people. There was a lot of confusion at that time,” she says. “The witnesses were gathering waiting for the police to interview them and going on that TTC bus one by one. The looks on their faces — they were just stunned and hugging one another. No one was really talking too much.”
She immediately checked to make sure all her staff was safe.
“I was concerned because some were not in the office, but everyone was safe,” Pon says. “There were some close calls, though. One of our colleagues was just stepping into the Tim Hortons nearby and the van was right by her and she couldn’t find her colleague.”
Meanwhile, another senior manager in charge of professional support services for the TDSB — those people who provide trauma counselling in schools — was right where the takedown of the van’s driver took place.
Another two of Pon’s colleagues from the Caring & Safe Schools department were trying to administer CPR to one of the victims.
“A woman from our international students’ desk on the main floor was also part of the emergency response team. She came back up with a bag of supplies and you could see the trauma on her face. She was trying to hold it together,” she says.
An assistant in the trustee services office on the main floor of the building and closest to the scene came out to administer CPR and first aid as well. A trustee who used to work in a hospital and was a police officer also helped one of the victims.
“One person was shopping somewhere and had just come out and saw chaos and was shaking. She was a health-care worker and was waiting to be interviewed by police and I walked into our offices with her and she just couldn’t believe what she had seen,” she says.
A Shoppers Drug Mart employee brought bottled water out and Pon and several colleagues helped distribute the water.
Later, the TDSB created a makeshift counselling centre in the executive boardroom where Pon had been meeting. Pon and some colleagues stayed at the office until about 7:30 p.m. Monday night.
“There was too much chaos. It was very traumatic,” says Pon who says North York is usually far away from the hectic nature of downtown traffic. “Mel Lastman Square is such a nice area. We have farmers markets in the summer time and there are a lot of people in that area. He [the driver] chose a very sunny day — first in a long time —during lunchtime and he drove on the sidewalk — in a part in front of our office where there is a row of trees that is very narrow. Someone told me he drove right through those trees but didn’t damage one of them.”
She says the response from everyone who rushed to the scene demonstrated Toronto’s true spirit of caring for others.
“It showed me the true feeling of Toronto,” she says. “This is a tough city, so I think we will be fine, but people need time to mourn.”