Toronto van attack survivor grapples with legacy of incident months later

The attack killed 10 when a man drove a van down a busy street

Beverly Smith has only hazy memories of the van attack that killed 10 people and left her broken and bleeding on a north Toronto sidewalk months ago.

But the 81-year-old Toronto woman grapples with the legacy of the April attack every day, as she adapts to life in a wheelchair and works to regain the independence she enjoyed before the devastating incident.

Smith, a retired teacher and librarian, awoke from emergency surgery to learn doctors had amputated both legs in order to save her life. She was also told she had suffered some brain damage, which her family believes may be to blame for her vague recollections.

“It hasn’t really hit me, only certain things,” she told The Canadian Press in a recent interview at the Toronto hospital where she continues to recover. “Like if I see somebody dancing or jumping, I think, I can’t do that anymore.”

The grandmother of five has also been experiencing phantom pains, which she described as feeling like she is wearing too-tight shoes and socks. “I keep thinking they’re there, but they’re not. There’s nothing there,” she said.

Fifteen others were wounded in the brazen daytime attack that made international headlines and left Toronto reeling with grief, with some predicting the city would be forever changed.

A 25-year-old man, Alek Minassian, was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. His case remains before the courts, with the next date set for September.

READ MORE: 8 women and 2 men killed in Toronto van attack: coroner

The site of the crash was transformed into a monument to public mourning as shocked residents left flowers and cards that were later cleared away in anticipation of a permanent memorial.

A fund in support of the victims has so far raised $3.4 million, and will continue to collect donations until the end of August. The money is set to be disbursed over the following month.

Smith’s family has also set up an online fundraiser to help cover the costs of her care and of making their homes wheelchair-accessible ahead of her return, which is scheduled for September.

And while there has been an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike, Smith’s family worry her story will be forgotten as the city begins to move on.

Though Smith recalls very little about the incident _ she has foggy memories of a phone booth, though there was none at the site _ her children said every detail of that day is seared in their minds.

They learned Smith was walking from her condo to the North York Central Library to return books and pick up a copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” when she was struck while crossing the street.

At the time, her son, Michael Smith, 44, was at home on his patio having a beer while a friend fixed his sink. Her daughter, Ally Copsey, was teaching at a high school in Newmarket, Ont.

When Michael Smith saw news of the attack on his phone, he didn’t think much of it, but turned on the TV to get more details, he said.

“The first images I saw were people being interviewed in front of my mom’s condo,” he said. “I was instantly worried.”

Calls and emails to his mother went unanswered, he said. Then police arrived at his home around 5:30 p.m. ”I came down the stairs, bawling. I just assumed she was dead,” he said.

The officers told Michael Smith his mother had just come out of surgery and took him to Sunnybrook Hospital, where he had to confirm her identity because her wallet went missing in the attack, he said.

With no knowledge of the extent of his mother’s injuries, Michael Smith walked into the room where she and other victims were being treated. She was unrecognizable, he said. “I just screamed a lot,” he recalled. “It was great to see that she was alive, but so many injuries.”

READ MORE: Officer’s actions ‘one shining moment’ after Toronto van attack

It took weeks for Beverly Smith to be alert again, her son said. After they removed her breathing tube, she was finally able to speak. “She didn’t recognize us…but we’re glad that we were able to communicate with her and hear her talk again,” her son said.

Still, it’s hard to see Smith ask for help, her daughter said. “She was so independent before,” Copsey said.

Smith’s younger grandchildren have also asked when her legs will grow back and when she will be out of the wheelchair, the family said.

Asked whether the family is angry about the attack or at the accused, Michael Smith said they haven’t dwelled on that aspect. Everyone is still in shock, he said.

“I’ve cried three or four times a day…it’s been exhausting. It takes a toll on us,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get over this.”

For all the challenges she faces, Smith said the impact on her children is what truly upsets her. “They have all the uncertainty,” she said.

Olivia Bowden, The Canadian Press


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