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Heartache in Yarmouth after young girl’s death following Christmas parade tragedy

Decorations made by children adorn the Christmas tree outside the Yarmouth town hall. There is much grief and heartbreak in this town following the death of a four-year girl after she fell beneath a float during the annual Christmas parade. TINA COMEAU
Decorations made by children adorn the Christmas tree outside the Yarmouth town hall. There is much grief and heartbreak in this town following the death of a four-year girl after she fell beneath a float during the annual Christmas parade. - Tina Comeau

YARMOUTH, N.S. – It’s always been a magical night. A family night. A community night.

A night where Christmas lights twinkle and holiday decorations shimmer. Where parade participants — bundled up for the weather, decked out for the season — wave and smile to the spectators lining the route.

Where those watching the parade — mostly children and families, equally dressed for the weather in hats, mittens, gloves and scarfs – smile and wave in return. “It’s so pretty!” people exclaim as the colourful floats pass by. And when he appears — Santa! — squeals of excitement from kids replace the holiday music that’s been filling the air.

It’s just a perfect family outing to ring in the season. And one that repeats itself in communities everywhere.

This is how Saturday’s annual Parade of Lights in Yarmouth was supposed to be.

And it’s how the parade started out.

But it’s not how it ended.

The Nov. 24 event that brings the community together in celebration instead has brought the community together in heartache and grief following the death of a four-year-old girl.

The young girl, whose name was MaCali Cormier — and who like so many others had been enjoying the excitement of the event — fell under a float as the parade was making its way on its final stretch along Starrs Road close to 7 p.m. She died from her injuries, leaving a family devastated and an entire community grief-stricken and in disbelief that an event that is supposed to bring so much happiness, ended instead in unimaginable sadness.

You can read MaCali's obituary here. She was a little girl who loved going to school, had a passion for swimming and camping, horse back riding and dancing and is being remembered as a little girl who loved helping others.

Many people — including parents and children — witnessed the tragedy as it unfolded. First responders and others immediately ran towards the chaotic and frantic scene to try to help, even before the emergency vehicles had arrived.

On social media there has been an outpouring of condolences for the family of the little girl, with people seeking ways to support them. A spokesperson for Huskilson’s Funeral Home in Yarmouth said they met with the family on Sunday to start to prepare the funeral arrangements. There will be no charge to the family for the funeral and the spokesperson added that a family trust fund is also being set up. The funeral home spokesperson said members of the public had been dropping by the funeral home on Sunday, seeking to make financial donations on the family’s behalf. A trust fund has now been established for McCali's brother and sister, Tessa and Matthew, at Huskilson's Funeral Home in Yarmouth.


WANTING TO HELP

Local resident Sarah Robicheau is one whose heart and thoughts are being extended to the family. Robicheau is part of a non-profit group called Anchor for Hope, which is reaching out to the community to come up with meals that can be delivered to the family in their time of grief. It’s something that’s been done in the past to help other families who have suffered the loss of a child.

“I lost two daughters of my own. I had a still birth in 2012 and I had a child die from SIDS in 2014,” said Robicheau, explaining she and a friend, Jody Levac – who also lost a child to SIDS – created the non-profit group Anchor for Hope to provide support regarding child loss in the community. There are a lot of volunteers from Yarmouth Wesleyan Church that also help, in addition to their huge group of moms who help other families. But they’re also turning to the community.

“I will be again looking for people who are interested in providing a meal to the family each day,” Robicheau wrote on the group’s Facebook page. “Grieving is consuming and exhausting. Making meals are last on the list if remembering to eat at all. This family is grieving the loss of a child while also caring for others.”

In an interview on Sunday, Robicheau said the response to the request has been wonderful. She says this was something that was done for her in her time of grief and it was very meaningful. “It's just something easy that we can do to take the burden off for the family. There’s been a huge outpouring already. I’m guessing the meal schedule will be pretty filled to the end of December.” Meals will be delivered to Robicheau’s home, and in turn delivered to the family.

“I’m proud to be from here,” she said. “The community definitely pulls together, for sure.”


Decorations made by children adorn the Christmas tree outside the Yarmouth town hall. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
Decorations made by children adorn the Christmas tree outside the Yarmouth town hall. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

RESOURCES OFFERED...CANDLELIGHT VIGIL PLANNED

There are many areas where people are pulling together. The little girl was a pre-primary student, and so support will be extended on that front.

The Tri-County Regional Centre for Education has implemented its Crisis Management Plan in response to this situation. Regional staff will be working with schools to assess the needs of the students and staff over the coming days. "Members of the crisis management team will be in schools on Tuesday morning to provide support for our staff and students,” the regional centre said Sunday, saying it will not be commenting further on this incident out of respect for the family.

A grief session for people who witnessed the incident or others who simply wanted to talk was held Sunday evening  at the Grand Hotel, facilitated by Bertha Brannen, an RN and Grief Recovery Specialist. 

On Monday evening, a candlelight vigil is being held in Frost Park at 7 p.m. Organized by Kendra Mills and Chellesey Lusk, the vigil will include songs and prayers and donations will be accepted for the girl's family.  Mills said Sunday evening it is good to see the community pulling together to show their support.


STATEMENT FROM THE TOWN 

Because this tragedy happened at an event that takes place in communities across the province and country, the pain being felt in Yarmouth is being shared elsewhere. But it hits hardest close to home. 

"As the devastating news settles on our town, we send prayers and comfort to this dear family on their tragic loss. We are grieving with you and we are here for you," said Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood on Sunday. "There are so many affected by this tremendous loss. We think of the family first, our first responders, hospital staff, those who attended the parade and so many others. We all grieve differently and the grieving process is important as we move forward. Grief sessions have been set up and I beg you take part if you are in any way affected – and we all are. Let’s be here for each other."

Mayor Mood said even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had reached out to offer his condolences to the family and community, and to all who have been impacted by this terrible incident.

"The outpouring of support, prayers and deep sorrow has come from across the entire nation. I spoke with Prime Minister Trudeau who graciously extended his heartfelt condolences and support for our community on behalf of the entire country. Mayors and other leaders from across the country, and hundreds of citizens have reached out with offers to help in any way they can," Mayor Mood said. "We will begin the healing together. What is most important now is that we continue to draw strength from and impart comfort on one another as a community, praying for this young family and all who were touched by this tragedy."


'IT'S SO SAD'

The RCMP are encouraging first responders and people to seek help in coping with this community loss. Cpl. Dal Hutchinson says the little girl was running alongside the float when she fell underneath. She was transported by EHS to the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, where a short time later she was pronounced deceased.

“I can't even imagine how this has impacted the entire community. It's so sad,” he said.

“As you can appreciate, as first responders we are expected to deal with tragedy on a regular basis. In this case, where it involves a child at a family event, the impact is significant on everyone,” he added, saying the RCMP has supports to offer to members who were involved with this tragedy. "As well, we are in contact with our other first responders, EHS and Yarmouth Fire, who also assisted RCMP with this incident."

“I can't stress enough the importance of people seeking help to manage their emotions after having witnessed this horrific tragedy,” he said. “Now people are in shock and feeling sadness for this little girl and her family. As time passes, these emotions can trigger other reactions, some of which require a person to seek help professionally … The community requires support and time to deal with this tragedy. Now's the time to support one another.”


REACHING OUT

This is the message Yarmouth firefighter Lynn Seeley is also spreading.

“In times like these we must all keep an eye on each other and reach out to our brothers and sisters. There is no shame in seeking help in any situation. It doesn't make you weak. We are here for each other,” he wrote in a Facebook posting on Saturday night. Speaking with the Tri-County Vanguard on Sunday, he said initially his post was meant for the first responders, but it is a message he hopes the entire community takes to heart.

Seeley said whether you are a member of the community or a trained first responder, there is no way to prepare for an incident such as this during what is supposed to be a festive event. He wasn’t at the parade but is thinking about his colleagues and his community.

“The two career guys were called down from the station, but there were a number of volunteers that were taking part in the parade that had attended the scene because they knew something had happened…We’re concerned for them,” he said.

There are debriefing sessions being organized for first responders. And others, Seeley said, will need help as well.

“I have a step-granddaughter who was on the float behind and my daughter messaged me this morning saying she witnessed what took place. Her life will be changed forever,” he said, saying hearing the news of what happened had moved him to tears.

Some local therapists have turned to Facebook to let people know they are there to offer help.


'WHAT HAPPENED WAS INCREDIBLY UPSETTING'

It was also a very emotional scene at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, said Fraser Mooney, a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

The Yarmouth Regional Hospital. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
The Yarmouth Regional Hospital. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

“What happened was very incredibly upsetting for staff in the emergency department, as it was for our entire community,” he said. “When something like this happens in the community, many of our staff are also affected on a very personal level. We know staff can be dealing with their own feelings of loss while providing health care and support services to those most directly affected.”

Mooney said their managers have been reaching out to individual staff members who were working Saturday night to see what support they can offer and there will be debriefing sessions. He also said the mental health team will be supporting the hospital staff.

“At times like this, along with the formal support offered, we encourage staff to check in with each other to make sure their co-workers know there is help available if need be,” he said, adding the hospital’s mental health team is talking about how best to support the community. More details on this are expected early in the week.

“In the meantime, we want people to know the Mental Health Crisis Telephone Line is available toll-free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to support people who might be dealing with anxiety related to a traumatic event like this: 1-888-429-8167,” Mooney said.


WE ARE DEVASTATED

Another group for whom this has been a very upsetting and emotional time are the organizers of the annual Christmas parade. On Sunday Barb Firth, the parade co-ordinator, posted on social media, “The Parade Committee is devastated by the traumatic accident during the Christmas Parade of Lights. We, along with the community, mourn the family’s loss and are praying for everyone affected. The focus is on coming together as a community and helping this family through a very difficult time.”

Difficult, indeed.

Rev. A.D. (Bill) Newell of Yarmouth – who over many years has helped people cope with tragedy – acknowledged that what happened Saturday evening was like a nightmare.

“It’s a tragic accident and the emphasis has got to be on the fact that it was an accident,” he said. “I think we’ve just got to be there for one another, to love one another, to listen to one another, to support one another, and we’re trying to do that.”

Rev. Newell noted that many people were affected, in one way or another, by what happened, including first responders. He said they’d be meeting with some of the firemen Sunday and that a formal debriefing would probably happen Monday.

“And then we’ll go from there. It’s something that’s going to be a focus for this coming week, for sure,” he said.

Newell said there may be a community gathering – similar to one that was held after the Pubnico Head fire that killed four children in January – although, as of Sunday afternoon, he said nothing firm had been planned or scheduled yet in this regard.

Meanwhile, among the churches where the tragedy was on people’s minds Sunday morning was Yarmouth Wesleyan Church. Rev. AJ Plaizier, the church’s senior pastor, acknowledged there is not much anyone can say at such a tragic time.

“People are looking for words, but there aren’t any,” he said. “You don’t have to have words. You don’t have to have the right thing to say.”

As for his message to his congregation, he said, “I just gave them permission to grieve. If that means grieving in silence, if that means kind of shaking your fist at God, that’s fine. That’s appropriate. Just to create the space where people can have all the emotions that they need to have at this time.”

While he said he didn’t directly know the family affected by the tragedy, he said in a small community such as this, when one family grieves, the community grieves with them.

(WITH FILES FROM ERIC BOURQUE)


If you need to talk to someone:

• The Mental Health Crisis Telephone Line is available toll-free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to support people who might be dealing with anxiety related to a traumatic event like this: Call: 1-888-429-8167.

• 211 is a free, confidential information and referral service that can connect you to thousands of programs and services offered by local community groups, nonprofits and government departments across Nova Scotia. It is available throughout the province – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – by dialing “2-1-1” to speak to a helpful staff member, by searching the easy-to-use online database at www.ns.211.ca or texting 21167.

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