Skip to main content

The day after the killing, a still-shaken passenger smokes while waiting to board a bus in Brandon.Ken Gigliotti

They are strangers united by a night they desperately want to forget.

Ten months ago, they rumbled east across the Trans-Canada toward Winnipeg, bound for school, birthday parties, jobs. Twenty kilometres west of Portage la Prairie, a prairie sunset draped Greyhound 1170 in gold. The Return of Zorro played on television screens. As some passengers dozed, a scream that still haunts them drowned out the movie, and a scene of unthinkable gore painted everything red.

They don't care to recount the rest. For them, too much of that now-infamous evening - the dismemberment, the beheading, the blood - is already public.

Some have drowned the memory in alcohol. Others have lost jobs, dropped grades, committed crimes. They can't look at sharp knives. They are paralyzed by crowds.

They are the forgotten ones, the 34 passengers and two Samaritans who watched, surrounded by wheat fields, as a deranged man defiled Tim McLean's body, along with every notion of human decency they'd once held.

This week, a criminal review board in Manitoba decided to lock up Vince Li, the knife-wielding man in their nightmares, in a high-security psychiatric ward for a year. Deemed not responsible for the murder due to untreated psychotic schizophrenia, Mr. Li will have his mental health reviewed annually. At the hearing, Mr. McLean's family read a chilling impact statement detailing their shattered lives. His mother, Carol deDelley, said she is haunted every time she sees a Greyhound bus, and said the company - which has restored, scrubbed and renumbered bus 1170, and is running it in another province - should take it off the road.

But what of the passengers' mental health? None lost a loved one that night, yet they lost something. The lives they had before are gone.

"I'm back there every day," said Marlene Gregory, who boarded the bus July 30 in Erickson, Man. "It just doesn't go away." She was off to work in Winnipeg, three hours east. It was a trip she made often, but hasn't since.

A strange, agitated man boarded the bus with her, she later told police. He had been pacing back and forth and talking to himself in a foreign language. When they stepped aboard the bus, at 5:55 p.m., the man sat toward the front. But after a smoke break, she saw him move to the rear, beside Mr. McLean.

The screaming started 45 minutes before sunset, around 8:30 p.m. Ms. Gregory has been trying to pray away memories of that sound ever since.

"They are native prayers, Ojibway prayers," she said from her home in Erickson. "In the morning and the evening. I pray for everyone who was on the bus. That's not to say it's going away. It's not."

She has developed an edginess around people, an instinctual caginess that she can't drop for friends or strangers. "Everywhere I go I'm very aware of my surroundings," she said. "I used to be the type to walk around and feel safe. I trusted people. And that's gone. I'm trying to get it back. It's pretty rough."

Like Tim McLean's mother, she shudders at the site of Greyhound buses and doubts she'll ever ride one again, a hang-up that's made for an isolated life in an already secluded town. "I used to be so independent."

Even huddled away from outdoor reminders, she can't avoid mental cues at home. Preparing supper poses a problem. "I don't like to use my kitchen knives, the sharp ones. That takes me back there."

A Winnipeg therapist has been helping Ms. Gregory, but she has not asked for, or received, any assistance from Greyhound. The company offered to reimburse her for a jacket splattered with blood in the murder. She didn't accept it. "It would be too much of a reminder," she said. "Anything I bought with that money would be a reminder."

'Paralyzed with fear'

Stephen Allison, 18, was sitting directly across from Mr. Li - within arm's reach - when the scream started.

He and his wife, Isabella, had been riding toward a new life budding with promise. He'd graduated his Northwest Territories high school at the top of his class, winning a Governor-General's academic medal, and was granted a scholarship to study criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. An empty apartment and a full future awaited in the capital city.

That was before.

When he saw the knife blade disappear into Mr. McLean's neck, he yelled at the driver to pull over and ran to the front of the bus. As he looked back, he noticed all but three passengers streaming down the middle: Mr. Li, Mr. McLean, and his wife. "She was paralyzed with fear," he said of the moment the couple still experience in nightmares. "Instincts just took over then."

He bounded over the seats toward his wife and Mr. Li, who was still plunging his knife, and pulled her to safety. They stayed in a Brandon hotel for a week and a half, where the scene played out in an endless loop in his head.

"Since that day, it's been hard to go out, hard to meet new people," he said. "I'm always suspicious everywhere I go that someone will do something. I'm always looking over my back, even around friends."

He nearly bombed out of university. He says Greyhound representatives assured him compensation and trauma counselling would come the couple's way. But shortly after the killing, the e-mail addresses and phone numbers Greyhound provided stopped working.

"The contacts I had all mysteriously disappeared," he said.

The company paid $437 to reimburse the couple for clothing, trading cards, a pillow and a pair of sunglasses. "The stuff was so stained they couldn't give it back to us," he said.

A spokeswoman for Greyhound said the company has treated compensation and counselling needs on a case-by-case basis.

This summer, Mr. Allison is working at a children's camp in the Northwest Territories. The proximity to nature and the lack of crowds have been soothing, he said. "Some days go by now without me thinking of it. It's a slow process."

'Numb all over'

As horrible as the scene Mr. Allison and his wife escaped was, others witnessed even worse.

With the passengers fleeing outside, the bus driver, Bruce Martin, pleaded with Mr. Li to stop stabbing Mr. McLean's lifeless body. He did not. Mr. Martin called 911. He relives the moment between "five and 50" times a day, often becoming "numb all over." He can't work and relies heavily on his wife, according to a statement his lawyer read at the hearing.

That night, there was a second Greyhound bus trailing 1170. The man at the wheel, Bernie Scyrup, had been driving for more than 35 years. He had witnessed all kinds of traffic carnage. When he saw 1170 veer off the road, he calmly pulled his bus in front.

He stepped aboard 1170 and called out to the man at the back of the bus. Mr. Li stopped hacking at Mr. McLean's neck long enough to look up and say "get emergency." It was then that Mr. Scyrup realized what the deranged man was doing.

"The young man was probably gone long before I got there," he said from his Saskatoon home. "I was right there. I done everything I could. The guilt part I got over quite quickly."

The more traumatizing part was the intense responsibility he felt for keeping the rest of the passengers safe. At one point, he had to open the engine compartment and disable the bus so that Mr. Li couldn't escape. "With all the confusion and trying to contain everybody in one area, it was stressful. It was one of those things you have to do in the line of duty."

For the 10 days that followed, Mr. Scyrup tried to be stoic. He'd seen it all, this was nothing. Or so he thought.

"I thought I could get through it on my own," he said. "Eventually my wife made me go get help. I thought I was being myself, but I wasn't talking to anybody. When there was talk, it was more an argument than anything. People around me really noticed it."

After countless sessions with a psychologist, Mr. Scyrup is back driving buses - empty ones for now - and says he's a more mellow person than before. Still, some encounters stir old memories. On a recent flight from Calgary to Winnipeg, he started sweating. "The combination of the crowds and the closed space, it set something off. That was the toughest hour and 10 minutes I've ever been through." Mr. Scyrup wasn't the only person who kept Mr. Li from escaping the bus that night. Bearing the knife and Mr. McLean's head, Mr. Li tried to open the bus doors. But blocking his path was a gruff-voiced man who seemed to materialize out of nowhere.

Trucker Chris Alguire had been hauling a load of steel pipe when he saw the two buses pulled to the side of the Trans-Canada. He stopped on the shoulder. A passenger yelled that someone was being stabbed, so Mr. Alguire grabbed every trucker's best friend, a steel snipe used for cinching down loads, and stood sentry outside the bus doors. "I was ready to break every bone in his body," Mr. Alguire said.

Half an hour after the first scream, the RCMP arrived to take over the scene. Mr. Alguire got on his way.

But his name would soon appear in the news again. Weeks after watching Mr. Li mutilate Mr. McLean's body, Mr. Alguire allegedly got drunk in a rural Manitoba bar and broke into a fenced compound. Last spring, the 29-year-old was facing break-and-enter charges. He quit long-haul trucking and moved closer to home in southeastern Manitoba.

"I started feeling a little territorial after all that," he said. "I'm not too bad now, still working at life I guess."

Most people who witnessed the butchery that night did not want to speak on the record. They are trying so hard to forget. One young man hasn't held a steady job since that day and can't pay his bills. One woman has found solace in art therapy. Most have thrown out the clothes they wore on the bus. They have laid low, and prefer it that way.

"It's not something I can ever talk openly about," Marlene Gregory said. "That life was taken from me and I won't get it back."

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles