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Suspect in Amqui, Que. pedestrian deaths charged; police identify victims

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The alleged driver who killed two people and injured nine with a pick-up truck in the small Quebec town of Amqui on Monday has been charged with two counts of dangerous driving causing death.

Steeve Gagnon, 38, appeared in court Tuesday afternoon to formally face the charges in relation to the incident, which police have alleged was a deliberate act.

Wearing a t-shirt and glasses, he was escorted by police into the courthouse, as people gathered outside the building shouted at him, calling him "rotten" in French.

The Crown said Tuesday afternoon that the accused will face additional charges.

"The police investigation is not complete at this time. There are a lot of witnesses that still need to be interviewed, so there is more information that needs to be gathered," said prosecutor Simon Blanchette.

He was remanded into custody and is set to return to court on April 5.

Police alleged the driver swerved from one side of the road to the other, across a few hundred metres, in order to strike the pedestrians at random. 

Authorities identified the two people who died in the crash on St-Benoit Boulevard in Amqui, a town of about 6,000 people in the Lower St. Lawrence region. 

Steeve Gagnon is escorted by police into court in Amqui, Que., Tuesday, March 14, 2023. Gagnon is facing charges relating to an incident where a driver of a pickup truck drove into pedestrians, killing two people and injuring nine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Sgt. Claude Doiron of the Sûreté du Québec said that Jean Lafreniere, 73, and Gerald Charest, 65, were killed walking on the side of the road. Nine others were injured and transported to hospital, including a nine-month-old in a stroller and a three-year-old toddler.

The children were seriously injured but their injuries were not life-threatening.

David Morin, a local resident, said he witnessed the panicked moments that followed the tragedy. A shaken Morin told reporters on Tuesday he couldn't get the image of one of the victims out of his head.

"He was alive when I arrived, and when I went to see another person, I came back and he was dead," he said. 

Amqui resident Ken Moreau said he heard "a big boom" at the time of the crash.

"A truck was heading towards me. People were flying everywhere. I just had time to duck and avoid getting hit," he said. 

Investigators with expertise analyzing crashes are on the scene to determine how fast the driver was going and how long he was on Highway 132 before the vehicle struck the pedestrians. 

A baby stroller lies o its side on the scene of a fatal crash, Tuesday, March 14, 2023 in Amqui Que. Two people were killed and nine others were injured Monday afternoon when a pickup truck plowed into pedestrians who were walking beside a road in the eastern Quebec town of Amqui. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

The alleged driver turned himself into a local police station Monday, according to Sgt. Doiron.

"He was fit to drive, but what about his state of mind at the time of his actions? That remains to be evaluated," said the SQ sergeant at a press conference Tuesday morning.

Quebec police said they believe the incident was not an act of terrorism, adding that it was an isolated incident and the actions of one individual.

SURVIVING VICTIMS IN HOSPITAL

Six victims were airlifted to the Enfant-Jesus Hospital in Quebec City. Of the six patients, four are adults and two are children. Three of the adults there are in critical condition, according to a hospital official. The children are in stable condition.

One victim remains at the Amqui Hospital and is in stable condition.

"I wanted to be here in solidarity with the victims," said Amqui resident Julie Ouellette, who knew some of the victims. "I saw them on the ground yesterday."

"It's a tragedy for the population. It's a tragedy for the care team in all sectors, the staff on-site, the medical team, all the staff members," said Claudie Deschenes, director of the mental health and addictions program for the Lower St. Lawrence region health board.

Police officers investigate the scene of a fatal crash, Tuesday, March 14, 2023 in Amqui Que. Two people were killed and nine others were injured Monday afternoon when a pickup truck plowed into pedestrians who were walking beside a road in the eastern Quebec town of Amqui. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Psychosocial support is being provided to those close to the victims and will be available in the coming days.

"We're going to make sure that we offer services to everyone who needs them," she said.

Deschenes said people can call 811 option 2 if they need support.

"People know each other well because we are a small place, a small village," she said. "We need to make sure that we are able to respond to people who have needs in the here and now. So during the crisis, for that matter. But beyond that, surely in the next few days, people may be affected… so we want to make sure that we can respond to the needs."

'ALL QUEBECERS ARE SHOOK': PREMIER

Quebec Premier François Legault spoke about mental illness during a news conference in Quebec City Tuesday, saying his government is working to reduce the wait list for mental health resources.

"All Quebecers are shook," he said of the fatal crash.

He said the Amqui incident is "discouraging" and evoked feelings of anger since this is the second time in just over a month that people have been killed by a vehicle in alleged deliberate acts. On Feb. 8, two children died and several others were injured after a Laval bus driver rammed his vehicle into a daycare.

"We cannot get discouraged and we need to fight against this," the premier said.

"I think I feel angry by thinking this is happening again. But, together, we need to be even more tight-knit."

'IT'S A SCENE THAT STAYS IN THE MIND'

Avignon--La Mitis--Matane--Matapédia Bloc Québécois MP Kristina Michaud grew up in the small, peaceful town of Amqui and was in the area when she started seeing the news on social media.

"Friends were texting and calling to see if we were okay, if my family was OK," she told CTV News.

After waiting for the scene to calm down, Michaud went to the area and was shocked to see what had happened to the main street in the town of 6,000 people.

"It's a scene that stays in the mind," said Michaud. "It's really rare for us to live such situations, it's not like in the big cities, the big centres. We are a calm, little town."

A 38-year-old driver has been arrested in Amqui for hit-and-run causing death (photo: Noovo Info)

Michaud's mother, stepfather and grandfather go for daily walks in the same spot where the pedestrians were struck on Monday, but for different reasons did not take the same route when the tragedy occurred.

She said it's a popular spot to walk, particularly when the weather is like it was on Monday.

"It was a beautiful spring day, and a lot of people were around; there was no school that day," said Michaud. "There were a lot of young people, a lot of families were there."

The close-knit community is now reeling with questions about what happened and why.

"It's a lot to take in. We are a small community, everyone knows everyone, so we all know people -- witnesses, people that were hurt or died and also people that were the first responders," she said. "It's really a lot for a small community like we are."

Michaud and other leaders in the region must now work to help residents feel safe and secure.

"We often speak about our region as a place where nothing like that can happen; we are safe in this community normally," she said. "It feels like we cannot say this anymore, like we're not safe... We're going through this together, which is a good thing even though it's a sad event."

The health and social services centre in the Lower St. Lawrence (CISSS-BSL) set up a special support line for those directly or indirectly affected by the tragedy. 

PUBLIC SAFETY MINISTER: 'WE DON'T UNDERSTAND' WHY

Quebec Public Security Minister François Bonnardel arrived in Amqui Tuesday to speak with community members and to survey the scene of the crash.

Bonnardel said he struggled to understand why the tragedy happened. "The inquiry will tell us what happened with this man and we'll see after that," Bonnardel said to reporters.

Quebec Public Safety Minister Francois Bonnardel speaks to reporters in Amqui, Que., on Tuesday March 14, 2023. (Noovo Info)

Bonnrdel and other officials urged people in the community to seek psychological help in order to cope with the tragic incident.

"It's a huge impact on a community of about 6,000 pope in Amqui. We support Amqui as a government … we will do everything we can do to support the community of Amqui," Bonnardel said.

Parti Québécois MNA Pascal Bérubé echoed those sentiments.

"It's a big impact," he said. "We need to be together and make sure that his horrible accident will be something about hope. We need to care of the family of the people who are dead now, people who are injured. The people who are stressed right now get the help that they need."

With files from CTV's Genevieve Beauchemin and The Canadian Press

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