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Toronto van attack victims, family ready themselves for sentencing hearing

"This is my one chance to stand up in court and say 'this is how I feel about it'. It's an important moment for all of us"

By Liam Casey in Toronto

Amaresh Tesfamariam’s family will draw on her fighting spirit this week as they summon the strength to speak about her life in front of the man who caused her death. 

Tesfamariam was among 11 people who died and 15 others who were injured after a man in a rental van went on a rampage along Toronto’s busy Yonge Street on April 23, 2018.

Starting Monday, her family, along with other survivors and dozens of victims’ loved ones, will submit victim impact statements to court as the case against convicted killer Alek Minassian wraps up. 

“We will fight just like she did,” Tesfamariam’s niece, Luwam Ogbaselassie, said in an interview. 

Tesfamariam, 65, suffered catastrophic injuries after being run down in the attack. 

She was paralyzed from the neck down, needed a ventilator to breathe and her heart stopped several times. But she fought to live for three more years, although she never left hospital after the rampage. 

She died in October, becoming the eleventh person killed as a result of the attack. 

Betty Forsyth, Ji Hun Kim, So He Chung, Geraldine Brady, Chul Min Kang, Anne Marie D’Amico, Munir Najjar, Dorothy Sewell, Andrea Bradden and Beutis Renuka Amarasingha also died in the attack.

Writing her victim impact statement forced Ogbaselassie to think once again about her aunt’s horrific pain and suffering.

But in that reflection, she also found strength. 

“The fact that she fought for as long as she did, she inspired so many of us that I think the memory of her will live on in all of us forever,” Ogbaselassie said. “We will fight just like she did.”

The sentencing hearing will allow the family to share the story of Tesfamariam’s life, rather than just her death, she said.

But the story was still difficult to write.

“It’s easier to shut off and not dwell and think about everything,” Ogbaselassie said. “She lived in such pain and misery, but kept strong throughout – that’s what we’ll hold on to.”

A similar strength has grown within Cathy Riddell, both physically and mentally. 

The van attack left her with a fractured spine, broken ribs, scapula and pelvis, massive internal injuries and a brain injury. She has been rehabilitating ever since.

The 71-year-old is heading into the week feeling strong. 

She’s lifted weights at a gym twice a week for years. She’s buoyed after “graduating to a cane” from her walker. And just a few weeks ago she had an uplifting encounter with a stranger who helped her that dark day. 

That stranger, David Sword, sat in his car in traffic on Yonge Street on the afternoon of the attack. He initially thought Minassian’s van was a getaway car from a robbery. 

He watched it ram into a woman, launching her into a bus shelter where shards of glass rained down. Sword drove across traffic and rushed to help. 

The woman sat frozen in place. He got her talking and found out her name – it was Riddell – but her answer to when she was born was nonsense. 

Armed with first-aid training, Sword kneeled behind her and kept her still. There was no blood and she breathed normally, so they waited together, motionless, for help.

A police officer came by. 

“There’s a van going down the sidewalk, hitting people!” Sword yelled, so the officer took off. 

A woman came out of a nearby salon to help – Sword vividly remembers her long, painted nails, but never got her name. She used those nails to pick out bits of glass from Riddell’s eyes, nostrils and mouth and brought her a towel. 

Thirty minutes later firefighters came by. Sword said Riddell was seriously hurt – he could see the outline of the van’s bumper on her blue pants – but not critically injured. The firefighters told him Riddell should lie down, so they carried her away from the glass and laid her down on the sidewalk. Sword put a towel under her head and on either side. 

The firefighters moved on, he said, because others needed more help.

Around that time Riddell began to moan with pain, coming out of shock. After 45 minutes, paramedics arrived and brought her into an ambulance. 

Riddell has no memory of the attack, something she’s thankful for, but believed for a year she had been hit in a different location.

On the first anniversary of the attack, Sword saw her briefly at a commemoration event. He visited the scene, hoping it would help him heal from traumatic memories of the day, and happened upon Riddell. 

He told her where he had found her and what he did that day.  

“It was very upsetting because I had been told I had been hit in a different place altogether,” Riddell said.

A downpour ended their chat prematurely and Riddell never got his contact information. She felt bad since she didn’t thank him properly.

“I’ve always wondered when I’m out for my walks, will I ever run into him again?” she said.

Several weeks ago, she did.

Sword saw her leaving the gym with a beaming smile as he walked in, so he stopped her. Riddell took a minute to place him, then her smile returned.

“I finally had the opportunity to thank him, a stranger helping me out that day,” Riddell said.

The encounter also helped Sword. 

“She gave me a tremendous amount of closure because of her joie de vivre,” he said. “It’s a great feeling to know that she’s just doing so well considering all that she’s had to face.”

Riddell said she was looking forward to giving her victim impact statement in court this week, although she knows it will be difficult.

She began writing it years ago while in hospital, noting she penned it for herself and other victims. 

“This is my one chance to stand up in court and say ‘this is how I feel about it,'” she said. “It’s an important moment for all of us.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2022.

Feature image – Flowers line a memorial at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto on Thursday, April 26, 2018 for the victims of Monday’s deadly van attack. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston.