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One year later: Parents, first responders on coping with trauma after deadly Laval daycare bus crash


Steps from a daycare in Laval, Que., a memorial for four-year-old Jacob Gauthier remains one year after he was tragically killed when a city bus plowed into the building's front entrance.

The memorial, set up by the preschooler's mother, is filled with small stones hand painted by the children at the Garderie éducative Sainte-Rose, north of Montreal, with personal messages like "I miss you" and "I love you."

A sign overhead reads: "When words are not enough. May these small stone steps take you as far as our love carries you."

Thursday marks one year since Gauthier and four-year-old Maëva David were both killed in the crash that shocked the country and left a devastating hole in the lives of two families.

The families of the children who survived the tragedy are also still grappling with the trauma.

Sébastien Courtois recalled how he first learned of the crash when he got a frantic call from his wife on Feb. 8, 2023, about 20 minutes after dropping off his son, Jules Courtois, at the daycare. At first, he couldn't understand how the crash could have even happened, since the road was so far away from the entrance of the daycare.

His wife arrived there before he did and called him, saying she couldn't locate their son. She told him he was likely killed by the bus that tore through the front of the building. She was screaming so much, he had to hang up the phone.

Sebastien Courtois' son, Jules, was pinned underneath the bus when it crashed into the daycare. (Source: Noovo Info)

As he got into his car, his mind went racing. His immediate thought: his family of four was now reduced to three.

When he finally pulled up to the daycare, he was relieved to see his little boy on a stretcher with paramedics. The family rushed to the Sainte-Justine children's hospital in Montreal for emergency surgery.

"At this time … I became like a robot. No emotion, no tears. I have to be strong for my wife, for my family because I know what they saw," he said in an interview with CTV News.

"For my son, he needs help and … Dad and mom have to be strong, stronger than everything."

Sebastien Courtois and his family. (Submitted photo)

Jules was pinned under the bus for several minutes, near the engine block, which burned his face. Now five years old, the young boy has a scar on his face, but he doesn't seem to let it bother him.

"As Jules says, 'It's my scar from the bus, but it's pretty'. He thinks his scar is beautiful," his mother, Virginia, told Noovo Info.

Since the tragedy, he said his wife and kids have gotten help to process the horrific scenes that played out that day. "But me, at these times, I need help," he said.

The help they got, he said, didn't come without its challenges. He said his wife went on leave after the crash but only received 90 per cent of her salary, while psychological support was reimbursed for $94.50, when sessions reached upwards of $150.

The people who rescued the children

Hamdi Benchaabane, who lives next door to the daycare, was one of the first people to arrive at the scene, before first responders, and joined another parent in rushing to save who they could. He immediately started going through the debris from the crash site and pulled children from underneath the bus.

"It was hard," he said in an interview on Wednesday. "The scene lasted about five minutes but it was a little bit of craziness."

Hamdi Benchaabane was one of the first people to rush to the scene after the bus crashed into the daycare. (CTV News)

Benchaabane wrestled the bus driver to the ground after the man had exited the bus, removed all his clothing and started yelling incoherently.

Laval firefighters were among the first emergency personnel to arrive on scene.

Patrick Gauthier, Operations Lieutenant, said all the information he had when he was en route was that there was a bus crash and a possible casualty. When he got there, he immediately saw people running and screaming.

"You soon realize that the scene is going to be quite different from what you're used to," he told Noovo Info.

From left: Laval firefighters Vincent Mercier, Sébastien Courville, David-Alexandre Clapin, and Patrick Gauthier recount the rescue operation they were called to at the Laval daycare on Feb. 8, 2023. (Source: Noovo Info)

Firefighters jumped into action, trying to simultaneously save children who were trapped and keep them calm.

"I was one of the first on the scene. We had to get them out so they didn't see the chaos we had. We made sure to put tarp on the bus, then make it look like an exit," recounted operations manager Sébastien Courville.

Gauthier said his team remained close in the crash's aftermath and talking through the tragedy helped the deal with the trauma

"It's being in a group. It helps us a lot to be able to debrief afterwards, then go through it together. That helps us get through it," he said.

"You can't move on 100 per cent. You'll always have the images, the sounds, the gestures you made. You learn to live with it. It's part of your baggage."

The deadly crash has still left its marks on the people who were there, but has also bonded the families of those affected.

Benchaabane said he has kept in touch with other parents and witnesses one year later.

Laval Mayor Stephane Boyer said the whole city was affected by the events of that day, which have left many questions unanswered. 

"The hard thing is that we still don’t know what happened. We still don’t why the driver did such a horrific thing. To grieve, we need to have answers. Hopefully, in the next few months we will get answers," he said on the eve of the one-year anniversary. 

The preliminary hearing for the accused driver, Pierre Ny St-Amand, is scheduled for March 25. Ny St-Amand is facing two counts of first-degree murder and seven other charges, including attempted murder and aggravated assault.

He is currently detained at the Philippe-Pinel psychiatric institute. A court-ordered psychiatric evaluation remains sealed. 

With files from CTV News Montreal's Denise Roberts and Noovo Info Top Stories

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