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Baby, grandparents among 4 people killed in wrong-way police chase on Ontario's Hwy. 401

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A police chase which started with a liquor store robbery in Bowmanville Monday night ended in tragedy some 20 minutes later when a suspect fleeing police entered Highway 401 in the wrong direction and caused a pileup which killed an infant and the child's grandparents, as well as the suspect, investigators say.

Officers with Durham police responded to a robbery at an LCBO location near Green Road and Highway 2 at around 7:50 p.m. after they were alerted to the incident by an off-duty officer.

According to a police source who spoke to CP24, an off-duty Durham police officer noticed the robbery in progress and confronted a male suspect, who then brandished a knife. At that point, the source said, the off-duty officer alerted police.

Durham police said the suspect fled when officers arrived, and they pursued the suspect vehicle.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Special Investigations Unit (SIU) spokesperson Monica Hudon said officers followed the cargo van through numerous streets in Durham Region as the vehicle drove erratically.

The vehicle eventually entered the eastbound lanes of Highway 401 at Stevenson Road, but travelling westbound.

"Shortly after there was a multi-vehicle collision involving at least six vehicles," Hudon said. "An occupant of the cargo van was pronounced deceased at the scene. Three individuals from a civilian vehicle were also pronounced deceased at the scene. And in that vehicle were a 60-year-old, a 55-year-old and an infant."

Hudon confirmed the two adults were the child's grandparents.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the Durham Regional Police Service (DRPS) said the crash has had a “profound impact” on the community and its own members.

“We understand there are many questions, however there is a legislated process regarding investigations conducted by the SIU that our service must adhere to. DRPS is fully cooperating with the SIU and as such are unable to make a public statement on this incident,” the statement read.

The force went on to say that their thoughts are with those impacted by the “tragedy."

One other person involved in the collision was taken to the hospital to be treated for serious injuries.

Images from the scene shared by motorists trapped on the highway following the crash showed a transport truck with the front cab crumpled in, as well as smoke rising from the crash site.

SIU probing police pursuit

The response by Durham police is now the subject of a probe by the SIU, an arm's length agency called in to investigate whenever police are involved in an incident which results in a death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault.

"At this time, the SIU has five investigators, one forensic investigator and one collision reconstructionist assigned to the case," Hudon said. "We are asking anyone with any information to say up to share that with us."

Hudon said the crash happened at around 8:10 p.m.

In the moments beforehand, witnesses saw the vehicle being pursued by police in the wrong direction.

Dashcam footage sent to CP24 shows a vehicle in the right lane pulling onto the shoulder of the busy highway to avoid a van travelling towards it, as well as a police cruiser, its lights flashing, pursuing the van.

A witness who spoke to CTV News Toronto said he was travelling in the same direction as the pursuit, and noticed the speeding wrong-way vehicles crisscrossing through traffic on the other side of the highway.  

"I was in the left lane doing 120 with normal traffic and it was as if I was parked on the highway when they passed me," Brodie Mills said. "Their speed was insane, the way they passed me in oncoming traffic during almost rush hour."

He estimated the vehicles were going at 160 to 180 kilometres per hour when he spotted them and questioned why the land pursuit continued under those circumstances as opposed to perhaps calling in a helicopter to follow the suspect vehicle.

"I was hoping somebody would call it off," he said.

A short time later, Mills said, he heard an explosion which he believes was the gas tank of one of the vehicles.

"I felt it in my truck pretty good. So I mean for how small the car was, it was a pretty big explosion," he said.

Hudon said the SIU will be looking at officers' decision to pursue the suspect onto the busy highway.

"Every situation is different and as part of the SIU's investigation we are going to look into the pursuit; When it started, where started, what transpired, what made up the pursuit and taking a look at policies and things like that," she said.

Images from the scene shared by motorists trapped on the highway following the crash showed a transport truck with the front cab crumpled in, as well as smoke rising from the crash site.

Hudon said it's too early to say whether the pursuit was appropriate.

Emergency vehicles arrive at the scene of a fatal crash after a wrong-way police chase on Hwy. 401 in Whitby, Ont.

"The investigation is in its really early stages and I'm not in a position to speculate on what may or may not have happened or what was or wasn't appropriate," she said. "The SIU will conduct a thorough investigation which will involve interviews with many, many people and the examination of a lot of evidence and paperwork and policies and things like that to determine what happened and what needs to be done."

Asked about the pursuit and deadly crash at an unrelated event Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford called it a "tragedy."

"My heart goes out to the family and my condolences go out to them," Ford said. "It's heart wrenching when you see everyone from a grandfather to a little baby that lost their lives because someone decides to rob a liquor store and go on the other side of the highway. It's a tragedy."

He noted that the province is working to better equip police in order to avoid police chases, noting the recent purchase of police helicopters.

The fiery crash shut down a stretch of Highway 401 in Whitby in both directions from exit 406 (Lake Ridge Road/County Road 23) to exit 410 (Brock Street/County Road 46). The closure lasted overnight and into the morning rush.

Tow trucks could be seen hauling away crumpled pieces of debris from the crash early Tuesday.

Some westbound lanes of the highway reopened by around 8 a.m. At around 9:45 a.m., Ontario Provincial Police said the highway had completely reopened in both directions.

The SIU is asking anyone with further information to come forward to investigators.

With files from CP24's Beatrice Vaisman  

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