Moments after a gunman’s bullet pierced his chest and he reversed his King County Metro bus to maneuver his five passengers out of danger, driver Eric Stark continued another half-mile to a bus stop near busy Lake City Way Northeast. Like thousands of times before, Stark flipped on his amber flashers and opened the front door. A woman at the curbside didn’t notice the two bullet holes in the window, only the illuminated Route 75 sign.
“She went to step on the bus, and I put out my hand — and I realized afterward there was blood all over my hand — and I said, ‘Don’t get on the bus, yet,’ ” he recalled during an interview Friday aboard the same bus. “She actually responded very calmly and said, ‘What can I do to help?’ “
The woman helped unbuckle Stark’s seat belt. She escorted him to a green seat designated for elderly and disabled passengers. Two police officers soon arrived, sliced his clothing and shoved gauze against his bleeding wound, between his left shoulder and his heart.
With bus-driving instincts so ingrained, it’s no surprise Stark intends to resume work June 10, less than three months after surviving the shooting rampage on March 27.
Stark’s wife, Kim, is already back to her job driving Metro buses, after taking a three-week leave to care for him. They have five children, ages 30 to 8 years, and two grandchildren.
Tad-Michael Norman, 33, the man suspected of shooting Stark, is in jail awaiting trial on two murder charges and three counts of attempted murder. Charging documents say he fatally shot retired doctor Robert Michael Hassan, and crashed into a car, killing driver Richard T. Lee, a retired French horn player and Seattle City Light worker. Also wounded in the rampage was schoolteacher Deborah L. Judd.
According to Metro Transit procedure, drivers who return from injuries must complete a few shifts of 2 1/2 to 4 hours each with a training supervisor, known as a “ride-check,” to prove the driver is ready.
Stark said his doctor wants him to complete a couple of physical therapy sessions this week before signing off.
“It wasn’t job-related. It wasn’t bus-related, it wasn’t Metro-related,” he said. “It was just a target of opportunity. We were big, we came around the corner.”
He expects to return to Route 75, which loops from the University of Washington campus to Lake City and Sand Point Way.
To drive he will need to control sporadic nerve pain, a burning sensation that wraps around his rib cage to his back. Stark said he’s avoided drugs stronger than Tylenol. He’s shed 130 pounds the past couple years. “I’m just trying to be healthy,” he said. “I want to live longer.”
“I’m hoping this nerve pain will go away. Nerves take time to heal,” he said. “And the shattered rib — you know, a simple bone fracture takes like two months, but the rib was shattered so it could take a long time. I’m hoping I don’t have to live with the nerve pain, but I don’t see it interfering with my job though. I can live with it.”
Stark said he’s leaning mainly on family and friends, who include chaplains, police and firefighters, for emotional healing. Bus and train operators at Metro report an average 90 assaults per year, ranging from being spit on to head wounds. Any assault against a working transit or ferry employee is a felony under Washington state law. The Amalgamated Transit Union views on-the-job attacks as a national epidemic.
He admits being spooked once when strangers parked a car on his Edmonds street at midday, and before he viewed flowers at the shooting site. “I can’t always anticipate what’s going to trigger some emotion, or whatever.”
Yet he expects to drive without fear, including trips in that same 40-foot-long New Flyer coach No. 3629. Besides the bullet that hit him, a second round dented a steel plate behind the driver seat. A friend will weld that to a frame, as a memento for the Stark family basement. On the front end, a bullet hole behind the bicycle rack has been partly filled, and masked by a black vinyl patch.
“Nobody else is going to know about the hole, but I know,” he said.
A few days after leaving Harborview Medical Center, Stark visited a friend at the bus base at 9 p.m. He sat in the same seat, contorting his back to understand how he ducked gunfire behind the steel farebox, while relying on muscle memory to push the brake pedal, and finger the buttons for neutral and reverse.
Kim and Eric Stark had lunch with a young woman who was riding the shot-up bus, and called the hospital to check on him. The couple have visited police and fire stations to thank first responders.
The aftermath brought national television clips, news conferences, visits by union leaders and elected officials, a medal of heroism from King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, and speeches by the state Senate. Seattle firefighters at a luncheon gave him a standing ovation.
A few colleagues walked over to shake hands when he showed up Friday with his youngest daughter, Aleithia.
“They have a big smile on their face, saying yay, it’s Eric,” North Base Chief Cathy Vujovich said.
A former pastor, Stark pondered the scripture, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
“It reminded us how many friends we have, the love and support of friends and family. People just came out of the woodwork,” he said. “It just reminded me of how good God is, he always takes care of us. People say, ‘well, he let you get shot.’ Well, stuff happens in life, but he’s taken care of us.”