Handi-Van driver saves passengers from vehicle fire

(Via Star Advertiser)

JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

Honolulu transit leaders are hailing a Handi-Van driver as a hero for helping two passengers escape from her van last weekend shortly before a fire on board engulfed it in flames. The incident raises renewed questions about the Handi-Van’s rapidly aging fleet as it continues to await replacement vans.

Georgette Chun was driving a couple, including a woman in a wheelchair, to Sandy Beach shortly after noon Sunday. As the van headed east on the H-1 just past Puuloa Road, Chun said, she smelled something strange, strong and unfamiliar coming from the van.

She knew something was very wrong with the vehicle and opted to exit at King Street — just blocks from the city’s Middle Street transportation yard.

The engine died as she turned onto Middle Street and white smoke started to waft from vents below the windshield into the van interior, Chun said, recounting the incident Wed­nes­day. She worked swiftly to unstrap the wheelchair, get the woman out using the van’s lift, and move the couple to a safe distance about 50 yards away.

Five or six minutes after she exited H-1, the Handi-Van was fully consumed by fire, Chun said.

“It was pretty fast,” she recalled. “It was hard to estimate time because I was in such a hectic mood, yeah? I was scared to death the whole time. Fire travels fast. I realized that watching the van burn. We were so lucky we weren’t in there. We wouldn’t have made it.”

Fire crews put out the blaze and the couple resumed their trip in another van, Chun said. She was back to work the next day.

“She saved two people,” said Oahu Transit Services President Roger Morton. “I really consider her a hero for getting everybody out.”

The nonprofit company, which acts partly as a city entity and partly as an independent operator, runs the Handi-Van and TheBus for the city.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. It’s the third time a Handi-Van has caught fire while on the road in the past three years, but it’s the first of those blazes in which passengers were aboard. The previous two fires, in 2011, were found to be caused by electrical problems.

Handi-Van officials don’t think an electrical problem caused Sunday’s blaze, mainly because the van’s wheelchair lift and radio continued to work after the fire started.

It’s also the latest in a string of service problems to affect the strained, aging fleet of about 160 vans, many of which have been kept on Oahu roads far past their prime. A spate of legal challenges over the city’s bid requests for new vans has prevented the city from replenishing the fleet for three years.

On Wednesday, Morton said he considers the service safe for its mostly elderly and disabled passengers despite the fire, and that it’s “very unlikely” that whatever sparked Sunday’s fire would happen in rapid succession to other vans.

“We’ve run these vans for 2,400 days and are very concerned over this, but … we don’t think it’s an imminent problem,” Morton said.

Nonetheless, OTS is conducting special inspections of the 85 other vans in the fleet designed from a Ford 450 chassis — just to be sure. None of those vans has been taken out of service, Morton said.

The van destroyed in the fire was about 8 years old and had about 350,000 miles on it, Morton said. The oldest Handi-Vans have been in service since 2002.

City officials, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, earlier this month touted the recent delivery of 15 new vans — the first of 99 recently purchased to catch up on the replenishment backlog. Since then, five more have arrived.

However, only three of those vans have so far been fully licensed and it’s not clear when the rest of that delivery will be operational, Morton said Wednesday. Further slowing the fleet’s replenishment is a nationwide shortage of the popular Ford chassis used to build the vans, Morton said.

City officials had hoped to have the full order of 99 vans completed by October. Now they’re not sure when it will be done, he said.

“I have a great mechanical staff, and they’re concerned as everyone else” in keeping the vehicles safe, Morton said. “We are very hopeful that we will soon renew 99 of the oldest vans. I wish it was sooner, but it is what it is and we are doing everything we can.”

Chun, a seven-year Handi-Van driver, said she’s not worried that another fire might occur while she’s working.

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