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Survivor of H-1 crash recalls ordeal

February 19, 2004

By Peter Boylan, ADVERTISER STAFF WRITER

Fire engulfed cab of truck

Carl "Sonny" Koonce III said he was talking to his supervisor, Mariano Salangdron Sr., about a Valentine's Day barbecue at Salangdron's house in the early morning hours of Feb. 13, seconds before two cars on H-1 Freeway slammed into the back of their flatbed truck.

The impact ignited the truck's rear fuel tank, and a fireball engulfed the three vehicles.Salangdron, 49, and three Schofield Barracks soldiers, Jason Bordwell, 22, John Surwill, 23, and Shanta Bridges, 26, were killed in the crash. Bordwell was driving one of the cars that slammed into the back of the truck, and Bridges was driving the other, the city medical examiner's office said.

The medical examiner's office yesterday said Bridges and Bordwell both had been drinking. Witnesses have said the two cars were speeding and possibly racing.Koonce, 56, talked to reporters for the first time yesterday. He said he didn't see anything in his rearview mirror before the impact, but said he remembers the back of the truck vaulting up in the air before he hit his head on the truck's ceiling. As the truck came down, flames began to envelop the vehicle's cab.

"I called for Mel, but he was out. He was slumped in the seat," Koonce said. Koonce said he reached across Salangdron and tried to open the passenger door, but it was jammed. He tried opening his door, but it wouldn't open, either.

Koonce said he began to panic as flames continued to climb around the cab. He said the day before the crash, he filled the truck's two gas tanks. The tank at the rear of the truck ignited on impact, Koonce said, and as he sat, trapped in the cab, he thought about the second tank that sits beneath the truck, right behind the driver's seat.

With both doors jammed, and the fire quickly spreading, Koonce rolled down his window and crawled out of the truck, falling flat on the freeway. As he crawled around to the passenger side of the cab, he said, the second gas tank exploded.

"By the time I got to Mel's door, it was a fireball," Koonce said. Koonce sustained a gash to the top of his head, burns to the back of his head and neck, and a broken rib. He received 13 staples and a lot of stitches to close the wounds.

Koonce and Salangdron were inspecting the zipper lane for debris when the crash occurred, Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Ishikawa said. Koonce has retained attorney Rick Fried Jr. to investigate the accident and identify the responsible parties.

Fried said the other drivers had been drinking at Zanzabar Night Club before the crash. The club's general manager, George Tanish, acknowledged yesterday that the men were in the club drinking and said they left at about 3 a.m. They did not appear to be inebriated, Tanish said. He said Zanzabar has a policy that does not allow employees of the club to let drunk patrons drive home.

The city medical examiner's office said that Bridges had a blood alcohol level of .086. The legal limit in Hawai`i is .08. Bordwell had a blood alcohol level of .063. According to state traffic records, both drivers had previous speeding violations.

Less then a month before the crash, on Jan. 22, Bordwell was fined for speeding. He had two other violations. On May 30, 2001, he was fined $100 and on Dec. 27, 2001, he was fined $172.

In October 2003, Bridges was fined $107.10 for speeding. In September 2002 he was fined $200 for speeding and in December 2002 he was fined $102 for running a red light.

Fried said an engineer working for his firm examined skid marks at the scene of the accident and determined that the cars were traveling at almost 100 mph. Koonce said he was driving between 50 and 55 mph.

Honolulu Police Department Capt. Jose Gaytan said police are still investigating the crash and cannot release any new information. Jason Bordwell's father, Bill, of Rotterdam, N.Y., said yesterday that he still does not believe his son was racing or speeding. He said he built Jason's 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse to look like a "fast car" but that its four-cylinder engine could never sustain high speeds.

"He (Jason) slowed the car down enough so that his passenger (Carlos Molestina-Arteaga) only suffered a broken collarbone. My son got trapped in the car and burned to death," Bordwell said. "I taught my son that this is a car, if you want to enjoy making it nice, fine, but respect it. Why would he be racing with a kid sleeping in the car? I don't buy it. He was a quiet kid. This guy loved his family and would never put it in jeopardy." Jason Bordwell had a wife and 2-year-old son. Bill Bordwell said his son had recently installed a nitrous oxide system in his car. Nitrous systems boost an automobile's top speed. Jason Bordwell's 1996 Eclipse was featured on the import car Web site Onlineshowoff.com.

Surwill, an Army sergeant from Powell, Ohio, was officially identified by the Army yesterday. Fried said he will seek compensation from both drivers' insurance companies, as well as the insurance carrier for Safety Systems Hawai`i, the private contractor that owned the truck Koonce and Salangdron were driving.

Koonce said Salangdron was more than a supervisor, he was a friend, and he's having a difficult time understanding why he is alive and Salangdron isn't. "I have a lot of turmoil going on," Koonce said. "I see burning trucks a lot."