Incomprehension in small Quebec town after pedestrians killed by truck

AMQUI — The town of Amqui, Que., was taking steps toward a return to normal life on Wednesday, even as citizens mourned the two men who died after a truck was driven into groups of pedestrians.

Businesses on St-Benoît Boulevard were once again open, and pedestrians were venturing back out on the street that was the scene of Monday's tragedy.

Daniel Thériault, who worked as a paramedic for 27 years and now works for the local church, found it hard to hide his anger at what had happened. He described what he saw Monday as a “war zone.”

“There’s still anger … when our citizens are attacked, (they're like) members of our family, because they were part of the community,” Thériault said in a phone interview.

Two people were killed and nine were injured when a man drove a truck down one of the eastern Quebec town's main streets, allegedly hitting several different groups of pedestrians in what police have described as an intentional act.

Thirty-eight-year-old Steeve Gagnon is facing two counts of dangerous driving causing death, and prosecutors have said more charges will follow.

On Wednesday, Quebec provincial police asked anyone who had information or videos of the event to come forward.

"Given that this tragedy happened in the middle of Amqui's downtown, during a day of good weather, we don't rule out the possibility that people may possess certain video images from a surveillance camera, cellphone or other device in connection with these events," they wrote in a news release. Gérald Charest, 65, and Jean Lafrenière, 73, died in the crash, and Thériault said he knew both of them well.

“He was very much in love with his wife,” Thériault said of Lafrenière, a friend of more than 30 years. “You could see them regularly walking hand-in-hand, they were an extraordinary couple.”

He said Lafrenière was from the Gaspé region and well known, having lived in the area for years and worked for a window company.

While he didn't know Charest quite as well, he described him as a good man who was popular in the community. “He was well liked for his work. He did landscaping and plowed snow in the winter,” Thériault said.

Amqui Mayor Sylvie Blanchette also said she knew Charest. “He was someone who walked regularly, I’d come across him either on foot or in my car,” she said. “He was always smiling whenever we met. He was always very pleasant.”

Blanchette said the grief was still fresh, a day after the scene was reopened to the public and the accused appeared in court. She said residents would surely flock to the sector again and take it back it following Monday’s tragic events.

“People will need to come out and find themselves on the site and have a solidarity among themselves,” Blanchette said. “Amqui is a place where everyone knows everyone, so they will support each other.”

Thérèse D'Auteuil, who was out for a walk, admitted she was paying extra attention to the passing cars. While she expressed "incomprehension" at what happened, she also feels that life needs to continue. "We can’t let ourselves be consumed by anger or speak badly of the family of the (suspect)," she said.

A Quebec City hospital confirmed Wednesday morning that three of the victims who were airlifted to the centre after Monday's crash remained in critical condition, though one was upgraded to stable by afternoon. The injured ranged in age from a few months to 77 years.

Chantal Poirier, who works at an optometry clinic on the street where the crash occurred, was back at work Wednesday. But memories of the crash were still fresh in her mind.

"When we heard the boom we turned around, I thought we’d see people who had an incident in a parking lot," she said. Instead, they saw people on the ground. "To see one person, two people, three people, whoa …" she said.

Amqui town officials announced Wednesday their flag will fly at half-mast until March 20, and the church bells will ring every day until Friday at 3:05 p.m., the time the tragic incident took place.

Kindé Cosme Arouko, a Catholic priest who is responsible for a number of parishes in the region, said a special church service will be held Friday evening in honour of the victims.

In an interview, he said the service would send a message of hope and solidarity to the people of Amqui. But he said he felt it was also a "spiritual duty" to pray for the accused.

"If he can change, that’s our prayer for him," Arouko said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2023.

— With files from Sidhartha Banerjee and Morgan Lowrie in Montreal

Patrice Bergeron, The Canadian Press