Family and friends gathered at a roadside memorial yesterday to mourn the four people killed Monday night in a two-car accident in Makaha. Florence "Ala" Eli-Adams, above left, the mother of victim Vernaleina'ala Eli, hugged sister Corrine Adams. Also grieving were Eli-Adams' sons, Analu, 10, left, and Mana, 5, and her husband, Andrew Adams.

Tragedy stirs
turmoil, tears

Families disagree on who was
driving the out-of-control car

Peika Uini Jr. said his son is alive only by the grace of God.

Talofaga "Talo" Uini, 19, is the only one of five people in a Nissan Altima to survive after the driver lost control along Farrington Highway and crashed into a Ford Explorer in Makaha on Monday night. Uini was ejected from the back seat behind the driver and broke his leg but is otherwise fine, according to his family.

"My son is doing OK. He is still trying to recover from the surgery," said Uini's father. "He's able to eat now, but he's still in a lot of pain.

"We're lucky that God -- the man above -- gave my son another chance."

Talosaga Uini with his late girlfriend, Tina Vaesau, in an undated photo.

Uini, his girlfriend Tina Vaesau, 18, Vernaleina'ala Eli, 24, Josh Mendoza, 20, and Chris Tacut, 21, were coming from the Del Monte pineapple fields in Kunia, where they all worked, when the collision occurred. Tacut and Mendoza, who are brothers even though Tacut went by his mother's last name, were sitting in front. Police investigators would not confirm who was driving.

Uini's sister, Emily Uini-Popo, said that, according to her brother, Tacut was driving when the collision took place. Eli's mother, Ala Eli-Adams, said Tuesday that Mendoza was driving.

Though the car was owned by Eli, Uini-Popo said her brother told her that Tacut had jumped in the driver's seat after the group stopped in Maili for a bathroom break.

"Verna (Eli) was yelling at Chris," Uini-Popo said her brother told her. "Verna told him to slow down."

A photo of Chris Tacut and his son, Hunter Kuahiwi Tacut-Carrero, above, was placed at the Makaha crash site.

Police said that according to witnesses, the Nissan and a white Honda were side by side speeding west on Farrington Highway at 7:12 p.m. when the Nissan moved into the middle lane, lost control, swerved into the town-bound lanes and collided with the Explorer.

The crash killed everyone in the Nissan except for Uini. The 18-year-old female driver of the Explorer and her 19-year-old male passenger were treated for minor injuries at the Queen's Medical Center and released the next day.

Police seized the white Honda, which was found abandoned in Waianae. The Honda was driven by Peter De La Cruz, a friend of those in the Nissan. Police were trying to obtain a search warrant last night to inspect the inside of the Honda.

Police are looking into whether the two drivers were racing each other, as witnesses said. Though De La Cruz has been interviewed by police, investigators said he is a witness, not a suspect. De La Cruz has denied the two cars were racing.

Autopsy results regarding blood alcohol levels of those in the Nissan are pending, investigators said.

Uini told his family that Tacut was not trying to race with De La Cruz.

"It wasn't a race," said Uini's mother, Carnation Uini. "They were speeding but not racing each other."

At the Makaha crash site yesterday, Lani Paje, left, embraced Florence "Ala" Eli-Adams, whose daughter Vernaleina'ala Eli was among the four killed. The two were with Shayna Gututala, 17, girlfriend of Josh Mendoza, another victim of the accident.

Tacut's girlfriend of three years, Frances "Franny" Carrero, said "he was a good daddy" to their almost 2-year-old son, Hunter Kuahiwi Tacut-Carrero.

Before going to work in the pineapple fields in May, Tacut stayed home with their son while Carrero worked, she said. "For the first year and a half of my son's life, he went everywhere with his daddy. He was daddy's tail."

Next to a photo of Tacut holding his son that is a part of the outdoor memorial to those killed in the wreck, Carrero wrote: "I promise that Hunter will always remember you and love you. I love you, and one day we'll be together again. Love, Franny."

Shayna Gututala, 17, said yesterday that her boyfriend, Mendoza, "was always there for me" since she met him 17 months ago.

Gututala said Mendoza, who did not graduate from high school, but had dreams of learning carpentry and building his own home, encouraged her to continue her education. She said she even wrote a "hero report" about him this fall at Nanakuli High School.

"He is a really great guy," Gututala said.

Mendoza would sometimes drink beer and drive, "and I'd yell at him and tell him not to do that," but he did not use drugs, Gututala said. "He isn't perfect, but overall he was a really good boyfriend. He was really sweet. ... He will always be in my heart no matter what."

Emily Uini-Popo, visiting her brother Talosaga Uini in the hospital yesterday, showed a photo of him and his girlfrend, Tina Vaesau. Vaesau was killed in the crash, and Uini was injured.

The growing outdoor memorial at the crash site continued to draw mourners yesterday, including the girlfriends of both men who died and Eli's mother, grandmother and brothers.

Friends stopped and placed flowers and stuffed animals at the base of posters with photographs of those who died. Under a nearby tree, a visitor consoled families.

Eli's 13-year-old brother, Recco, stood by as the adults hugged and cried and his younger brothers Mana, 5, and Analu, 10, played in the adjacent Lahilahi Park.

"I no know what for say right now," the lanky teen said, looking at the ground.

Uini's mother said her son and his girlfriend, Vaesau, started working because they wanted to have money to buy Christmas gifts, and the day of the crash was their first day at work at Del Monte.

She said losing the others in the car was like losing family members of her own. While Vaesau had been living with the Uinis for about a month, Eli lived downstairs from them in the same Makaha four-plex, and Josh would visit often.

"I'm going to miss Verna and Josh calling me auntie," she said. "I grieve for those families. They're like our family. We all live in the same place.

"My heart goes out to them."


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