Army regrets traffic jam
The drivers who struck an overpass have their licenses suspended
A 35-year-old Army sergeant is under investigation after driving a tractor-trailer with an excavator that struck an Aiea pedestrian overpass, causing traffic backups across the island for hours.
The Army suspended the licenses to drive any military vehicles of both the driver and the assistant driver, a 19-year-old private first class.
The Army is conducting an investigation, which could result in either the driver and/or the assistant driver facing a court-martial, though it is not likely, stressed Army spokesman Lt. Col. John Williams.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Crews worked at 3:15 a.m. Wednesday on demolishing the overpass. Crews attached cables to the last section to be cut away. The freeway was open in time for the morning commute.
The freeway closure snarled westbound traffic on Oahu until early yesterday, forcing some motorists to take as long as seven hours to get home.
The Army capped a series of news conferences yesterday about the Tuesday freeway closure:
» Gov. Linda Lingle acknowledged that her administration could have better communicated the freeway closure to the public and others. She said she regrets the inconvenience and frustration it caused. Lingle said the Army vehicle did not have a state permit to transport its load, a hydraulic excavator, on the freeway. She said even though the Army transported the excavator on the freeway before, it needed a new permit because it had another piece of equipment attached this time, which made it too tall to fit under the bridge.
» Capt. Frank Fujii said police are investigating three separate motor vehicle cases that occurred Tuesday afternoon in the vicinity, one a criminal case involving fleeing the scene of an accident, and a major and a minor motor vehicle collision. But police have not identified a suspect in any of the cases.
At a news conference yesterday at Fort Shafter, Maj. Gen. Stephen Tom said the investigation will "determine what caused the accident, whether standard procedures were followed and whether they were adequate."
The investigation's results "will determine whether punishment will be levied, and more importantly, this information will be used to modify procedures to prevent an accident like this from ever happening again," he said.
Tom apologized on behalf of the Army, expressing "deep regret for the effect this had on families throughout the island."
"We empathize with the strain the resulting traffic placed on everyone," he said.
Tom, deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Pacific, said "the boom of the vehicle was in a position higher than in previous transports."
The boom was estimated at 18 feet, the Army said, higher than the 16-foot-9-inch height of the bottom of the overpass.
Tom said the Army tractor-trailer was transporting the hydraulic excavator, which had been used in Kwajalein to demolish an old barracks, from Pearl Harbor to Schofield Barracks.
When asked about what police could have done better, Capt. Fujii said, "We did the best we could with the resources available."
Lingle said it would have been dangerous to allow vehicles to travel under a damaged pedestrian overpass with the threat of pieces of concrete falling on motorists.
From now on, any closure of a freeway will trigger notification of state Civil Defense, Lingle said.
Had state Civil Defense officials been notified, they could have told the visitor industry that traffic delays could cause people to miss their flights, Lingle said.
Administration officials could have also notified major employers like hospitals, banks, hotels and universities. Lingle believes tens of thousands of people could have been reached that way.
She said those measures were not taken because the situation caused by the damaged overpass was not an emergency like a hurricane or tsunami warning -- "because people were thinking of this in a traffic context," Lingle said.
Had Oahu Civil Defense known, they would have worked with police to designate alternate and evacuation routes, said Peter Hirai, Oahu Civil Defense plans and operations officer.
They could have even called in the American Red Cross to provide shelters for bus riders and others stuck in traffic as they did six years ago, when a 12-hour standoff between police and an armed suspect halted traffic on Farrington Highway in Nanakuli.
City officials said emergency services were not affected.
"Everything went normal," said Capt. Frank Johnson, Honolulu Fire Department spokesman.
It was the same for city ambulances, said Bryan Cheplic, city Department of Emergency Services spokesman. The drivers know the alternate routes. And they were able to cut through traffic when they needed to.
Ambulance workers responded to one incident related to Tuesday's traffic delay: a motorist who died behind the wheel of his van. The van was on the side of the freeway near the Army vehicle that damaged the pedestrian bridge. A television camera man noticed the man was not moving and notified police.
Cheplic said the man had a medical condition and was pronounced dead at the scene at 7:06 p.m. The Honolulu medical examiner said the man was Gene Dela Pena, 47, of Honolulu. The cause of death has not been determined.
Lingle said the state has spent $150,000 so far to remove the damaged half of the pedestrian bridge and will spend more money to replace it.