A 52-year-old homeless man became a hero yesterday after a city bus, damaged by a falling ironwood tree, careened across the median of Pali Highway and headed into oncoming traffic.
Brian Ward grabbed the steering wheel after the bus driver appeared to be in shock and unresponsive and guided the bus to the shoulder, where it eventually stopped on its own.
"He would be a hero, just for trying," said Roger Morton, president of Oahu Transit Services, which operates the city’s bus system, when asked about Ward’s actions. "I’m sure he was frightened to death."
Morton later phoned Ward to thank him for his actions.
Don Pedro, 63, a driver with TheBus for 36 years, had just driven the Route 57 bus over the peak in the highway about 10:50 a.m. and was heading toward town with 10 passengers when a 60-foot tall ironwood tree fell into the road.
It hit the right corner of the bus and the back of a car driven by Kaiwa Meyer, 68, heading in the same direction.
"I wasn’t prepared for the next hit, which was this big, huge bus," Meyer said. "He could’ve squashed us down, or turned us over."
With a demolished front end, the bus crossed the median and stopped about 300 yards away along the far shoulder of the Kailua-bound lanes.
Pedro, whose brother is also a driver with the company, was the most seriously hurt and went to the Queen’s Medical Center with head injuries and in serious condition. Four passengers also went to the hospital. When reached by phone at the hospital, Pedro’s wife declined to comment.
Ward was heading to Tripler Army Medical Center for a checkup when the bus crashed. He was seated in the right front seat looking out the window as the bus left the Pali Tunnel and saw the tree enter the front end of the bus. He heard two loud bangs, the second from the tree’s opposite end hitting the back end of the bus, and saw glass and the bus’ front display land on the driver.
Glass flew straight at the riders, and people were screaming —especially one woman who appeared to have been hurt in the back of the bus — but Ward didn’t look back because he was too focused on the road ahead, he said.
"We were still rolling down the road," he said. "I get up immediately, start cleaning up the debris. … I pushed the glass out the window."
He was trying to help Pedro, the driver, and saw his nose bleeding and his eyes rolling into the back of his head.
"Suddenly, we’re careening out of control, going into oncoming traffic, so I’m like, ‘I got to figure out how to stop the bus!’" he said.
When Pedro regained consciousness, Ward shouted, "You got to stop the bus, bro!"
"He’s like, ‘I can’t,’" he said. "He was in shock."
WARD GRABBED Pedro’s arm and turned the wheel toward the guardrail. "When I finally got it going over to the side of the road, it finally came to a stop," he said.
He couldn’t recall the moment the bus went across the median, but remembered seeing oncoming cars and waving them away through the gaping hole where the window had been.
He credits another woman, whose name he did not know, who helped him clean glass and debris off Pedro while the bus was still rolling out of control at about 35 mph.
"The realization that your life can go in just a second, that really shook me up," Ward said. "I thought I was dead."
Department of Transportation spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said a preliminary investigation found the tree fell because of the strong winds during a wind advisory yesterday. The tree did not have obvious signs of decay. He said inspectors believe Pali Highway is safe from falling trees, but expressed remorse for the unexpected near-disaster.
He said the department has an aggressive hazard tree program to prevent such incidents. The program requires arborists to inspect Pali Highway, H-3 freeway and Likelike Highway every two years for tree problems, and also requires employees to report hazardous trees and for the trees along those three roads to be trimmed every year.
The ironwood tree, 2 feet in diameter, was removed and will be recycled, he said.
Police closed the highway to Honolulu-bound traffic at Castle Junction briefly.
Star-Advertiser reporter Gene Park contributed to this report.