Survivor of crash recounts escape

Thursday, February 19, 2004

news conference

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
At a news conference yesterday in attorney Rick Fried's office, Carl Koonce III, who survived Friday's H-1 freeway crash that killed four people, greeted his mother, Grayce Smietam, who had flown in from Los Angeles.

A worker says the collision impact lifted their truck on the H-1

By Debra Barayuga and Leila Fujimori

dbarayuga@starbulletin.com lfujimori@starbulletin.com

Carl "Sonny" Koonce III never saw it coming.

The Safety Systems Hawaii Inc. employee and his supervisor, Mariano "Mel" Salangdron, were scouring the H-1 freeway Ewa-bound for debris just before 3 a.m. Friday in their flatbed truck, as was their daily routine, when "I just felt the truck lift up -- I mean literally -- lifted up the back of the truck," he said.

He hit his head on something, then the truck came back down. "The next thing I remember was just flames coming along the side of the cab," said Koonce. He called out to Salangdron, but there was no response. He could see Salangdron slumped in his seat.

Koonce frantically tried Salangdron's door, then his, but neither would open. "I just filled the truck the day before, so I (had) about 50 or 60 gallons of gas," he said.

He rolled down his window and crawled out before the truck exploded. "By the time I got to Mel's door, it was just a fireball."

Carl  Sonny  Koonce

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Carl "Sonny" Koonce III, whose head bears burn scars as well as stitches and staples from injuries suffered in Friday's crash, talked yesterday with his mother, Grayce Smietam, during a news conference at his attorney's office.

At a news conference yesterday, Koonce recounted how Salangdron, 49, and three Schofield Barracks soldiers in two separate cars were killed on the H-1 freeway near the Waipahu offramp.

Police said they suspect the two cars were racing before one collided into the back of the truck and got wedged underneath. The second car crashed into the first car and also caught fire.

Spc. Carlos Molestina-Arteaga, 23, a passenger in the second car, survived.

Koonce, 56, who was driving the truck, escaped with a broken rib, abrasions on his face, burns to the back of his head and neck and what doctors called a "divot" in the back of his head that required 13 staples and numerous stitches to close.

One of the three soldiers who died in the crash would have been considered legally drunk if he were driving.

According to the city medical examiner's office, the blood-alcohol content for Sgt. Shanta Bridges, 26, was 0.086, slightly over the legal limit of 0.08.

Spc. Jason Bordwell, 22, the driver of the second car that slammed into the truck, had a blood alcohol level of 0.063, while John Surwill, 23, had a level of 0.054.

Bridges and Surwill were in the first car that struck the truck, but it is unclear who was driving.

According to traffic records, Bordwell had been cited three times for speeding, the latest on Jan. 22 for going 80 mph in a 55 mph zone. In 2001 he was caught going 84 mph in a 55 mph zone and 41 mph in a 25 mph zone.

Police say the cars, which were badly burned, may have been modified, judging from the wheels.

Bordwell had listed his 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse at an Internet site called ridejudge.com where he described the modifications he had made to his car.

The suspension was lowered, giving the car a lower center of gravity and allowing for better handling at high speeds. The engine had minor aesthetic modifications, more for looks than performance, according to one local expert.

Koonces burned truck

DEAN SENSUI / DSENSUI@STARBULLETIN.COM
Koonce's burned truck was inspected by officials Friday at the accident site on the H-1 freeway. Koonce's co-worker and passenger was killed, as were three other men in two cars believed to have been racing.

Koonce's attorney, Rick Fried, said he has received information alleging that the cars' occupants were at Zanzabar Night Club before the crash and that there may have been a pickup truck acting as a "lead" car.

A spokesman for Zanzabar said the soldiers apparently were there the night of the crash, but one of the men was a designated driver and the other driver consumed little alcohol.

Koonce made a public plea yesterday for anyone who may have seen the occupants of the two Mitsubishi Eclipses earlier that night or the events leading up to the crash and the crash itself to call Fried at 524-1433.

"I don't know why I'm alive and Mel is gone," said Koonce, a black ribbon pinned to his breast pocket as he talked publicly for the first time yesterday about the crash. He said he did so only because of his late friend and supervisor. "I want this to be about Mel."

Koonce said they had just plucked a mattress off the freeway fronting the Sears Distribution Center and were heading toward Waikele. The two were talking about where they were going to take their wives for Valentine's Day.

None of the truck's warning lights, activated when they have to slow down and stop to pick up debris, were on because he was driving about 50 to 55 mph, Koonce said. But the truck is encircled on the left, right and rear by reflective tape, red reflective spots on the front and rear corners and a series of taillights, he said.

While he occasionally glances in his rearview mirror, Koonce said he never saw any lights behind him prior to the impact or saw how fast the cars may have been traveling before slamming into his 7,000- to 8,000-pound truck. "The vehicle that hit me lifted me off the ground and got under it -- it wasn't going 55 or 60 -- it's just ... it's senseless," he said.

Preliminary reports on the skid marks indicate the cars may have been going about 100 mph, Fried said.

Koonce, who has worked for Safety Systems for 14 years, said he is confident in the safety measures they took and the truck's equipment.

"We took every precautionary measure that was available -- the truck was equipped with all the lights, the advance warning signals necessary, and we utilized everything," he said.

In the event he has to stop for debris on the roadway, he will usually pass the object, ensure no one is behind him, slow down and turn on all his lights. The lights include flashers, hazard lights, two strobe lights on either side of the truck, a directional bar that sits between the strobe lights and a work light similar to a spotlight, he said.

After all the lights are activated, he then reverses to retrieve the item, he said. If the object is on a bend or curve in the road, he will not stop, but will alert the Zipper operator.

In his 5 1/2 years of maintaining the H-1 and H-2, Koonce said he sees cars racing every day and how the racers "stage" or hold back traffic to allow cars to race ahead.

"I've seen one person one moment, and I've seen one person dead the next -- and all for racing," Koonce said.

He has a lot of mixed feelings about not being able to help his friend that day and says he has nightmares. "I see a lot of burning trucks," he said.

Koonce expects to be back on the job in a few weeks doing the same thing he was doing on Friday, as soon as his wife will let him.

"I'll be back on the freeway -- I've no problem with that."