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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 17, 2002

Safety vigil mourns Farrington victim

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Yesterday, on the sun-kissed morning after Melvin Kunukau's funeral, his family decided there was only one way after such a tragedy to get on with life, and that was to get out this message: Speed kills.

From one end of Ma'ili Point to the other, friends and family of Melvin Kunukau line the roadside in a plea for motorists to drive more safely. Kunukau died Jan. 21 not far from where another collision killed his kid brother 17 years earlier.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

And this one: Slow down.

And this one: Drive with aloha.

The messages were painted on signs held by the loved ones of the latest Farrington Highway fatality as they stood roadside, from one end of Ma'ili Point to another.

It was a message with which the Kunukaus of Wai'anae were too painfully familiar.

Seventeen years ago, Melvin Kunukau was an 18-year-old at the wheel when he suddenly swerved in a futile attempt to avoid a car that had crossed the center line of Farrington Highway near Ma'ili Point. In that collision, 11-year-old Lintaro Kunukau, a brother who was riding along, lost his life.

Early Jan. 21, Melvin Kunukau, the eldest of 10 children, was driving to work when a car crossed the center line of the highway, hit a vehicle and flipped onto his car, instantly killing the 34-year-old airport custodian and father of two.

That accident occurred about a quarter-mile from the 1985 crash.

In this close-knit community, many people knew of the family's suffering. While driving toward town for weekend activities yesterday, many honked and waved as they passed a few dozen supporters wearing matching T-shirts. On the back was a design based on the Hawaiian flag, lettered with: "In Memory of Melvin Kunukau."

Most of them stood there to show love for a bereaved family. And many appreciated the opportunity to honor the kinsman and friend whom they lost, a man who played 'ukulele and adored music in general. Kunukau had started his own DJ business, Big Kahuna, and would spin CDs at parties.

"He was a really aloha kid," said his cousin, Ethylene Rivera. "He had a lot of friends. At the wake, people who knew him, they were there. Even people from Kaua'i, they were there. ... He would just make friends in five minutes."

The accident has left his closest relatives with something in addition to their fond memories: anger.

"Yes, anger," his sister Tia're admitted. "Especially when I know it could have been avoidable."

State Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Barbers Point, Makaha), joined the sign-waving crew. Hanabusa, an outspoken critic of the controversial speed-van program, continues to lobby for road safety improvements at trouble spots like Ma'ili Point. No matter what speed commuters travel there, Hanabusa said, the danger, and the cause of many of the fatalities, is that it's easy for cars to cross or be nudged across the center line and into oncoming traffic.

Proposals for median barriers haven't met with resounding applause, but Hanabusa said opposition has weakened. She said more people are willing to put up with the unattractive concrete barriers while a permanent solution — a wide, grassy median strip to separate the opposing lanes of traffic — can be planned.

Hanabusa herself has lost two family members to traffic accidents on or near Farrington Highway.

"For me, it's personal," she said. "For this family, it's personal."

Tia're Kunukau underscored that.

"I'm just hoping they hear us and that something be done," she said.

A few yards ahead of the sign-wavers, police posted a digital display that clocked the speeds of passing autos. Some of the numbers that flashed beneath the 35 mph speed-limit sign — 23, 26, 37, even 20 — showed people were listening, at least for the short term.