Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of columns about the Hana Highway, one of the most traveled roads in Hawaii.
Jonathan and Pake Tolentino were finally on the road to Hana, heading home on a dark Friday night earlier this month after a blur of doctor’s appointments, food shopping and a stop to pay their respects at a funeral.
Pake was at the wheel of a low-slung sedan, Jonathan in the passenger seat. Before Jonathan was injured on the job, trying to rescue a man who’d fallen down a rocky cliff at Waianapanapa State Park on Aug. 21, the couple had shared driving duties from Hana to Kahului in the family truck.
Now her husband of nearly 42 years sat beside her, massaging the healing stumps swathed in white gauze where his legs ended at the knees. His 30-year career as a respected and beloved EMT with American Medical Response in East Maui was over, his future health and income in doubt.
The 2004 Honda Accord was a gift from their granddaughter, Sharai Roback-Tolentino. After the amputations became necessary between Thanksgiving and January to save Jonathan’s life, Sharai insisted her grandparents use the more comfortable car for their multiple weekly commutes to therapy and doctors’ visits. Besides, Pake could not lift Jonathan in and out of the truck.
With nearly two hours on the road still ahead, the Tolentinos were relaxing into the Hana Highway’s rhythmic twists and turns. Then the engine quit between mile markers 7 and 8.
After futile efforts to restart the car, the stranded motorists thought they had a stroke of luck; an emergency call box was located nearby.
“I lifted the cap off the box and followed the instructions as they flashed on the screen,” she remembers. “I pressed the ‘yes’ button for an emergency, then ‘no’ buttons asking if I’d had an accident or needed a policeman, ambulance or fire department. When I pressed the ‘yes’ button necessary to make a call, the screen said ‘hold for operator.’”
She hung up after a 10-minute wait, unaware that just five of the 18 antiquated emergency phone boxes between Kahului and Hana actually sent an SOS for stranded travelers. The one Pake used, like 12 others along the road, was dead — the victim of outdated electronics.
Discovering her own cell phone worked, Pake made repeated calls to her emergency roadside service’s 800 number but got only busy signals and “please call back” recordings. Two local tow truck companies rejected her pleas for help because of the late hour.
After a passing friend pushed the car out of the road, the exhausted couple locked the vehicle and went home with a rescuing relative. The next morning, March 5, neighbor Kekoa Pua drove out from Hana to meet the tow truck.
When he got there he wound up documenting a crime scene. The Tolentinos’ vehicle had slashed tires; a smashed dashboard, sunroof and windows; trashed upholstery; personal papers scattered over the floor and seats; all medical records and vehicle registration papers missing; the engine stripped of vital parts and a severed gas line. Gasoline was splashed around the car, a trail of it running from beneath the open tank to scorched ground beneath.
Pake immediately called the Maui Police Department to report the crime. Now, two weeks after the incident, no one has been charged. A police detective is investigating the case.
“The detective … follows leads from the information provided, one lead to another lead and another lead,” said a police spokesman. “If the detective comes up with information that leads to a resolution, he will call (the Tolentinos). If not, it’s an open investigation.”
Like millions of people traveling some of Maui’s busiest highways every year, Pake thought she could depend on getting help at one of the state’s 45 emergency call boxes. But relying on most of them fosters a false sense of security.
“Only the five boxes connected to a landline are working and they are on the Hana Highway,” said Don Smith, the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s acting district engineer for Maui County.
He said the still-functioning landline emergency phones are located at mile markers 20.5, 24.5, 26.4, 28.9 and 30.5 on the road to Hana.
“We have just recently found out that the cellular technology in the other 40 call boxes is no longer being supported by AT&T,” Smith said. “AT&T said that calls could not be made because the boxes do not have service.”
Smith, who recently assumed his new job, sent a technician to every call box on Maui to test them “because if you are on the road and see an emergency box you have the expectation it will work.”
“I also asked the technician to use his cell phone to see if he could make calls,” Smith said. “He had cell reception at 30 of the 40 nonworking sites, with 16 of them having very good service and another 14 with weaker signals, but could probably be used to send a text.”
“What I am trying to figure out is, if a traveler has cell phone service at these emergency call sites, why do they need these obsolete call boxes?” the HDOT district engineer said. “I’m working on this.”
As Smith tries to upgrade Hana Highway emergency communications and a MPD detective tries to solve the Tolentino vandalism case, Pake and Jonathan continue twice-weekly commutes from Hana to Kahului in an SUV loaned by Hana friends.
He sees his doctors for any further sign of life-threatening infection and is being fitted with prosthetic limbs. Having given up her job to care for her husband, who now receives just 60 percent of his usual paycheck, Pake is trying to figure out how to support them and pay the auto repair bill estimated at several thousand dollars.
“I thought the Honda was covered (by insurance) for vandalism but Geico told me it wasn’t,” she said.