After being hit in the chest by gunfire, Metro bus driver Eric Stark said one of his first thoughts was for his passengers: “I’m going to get these people out of here.”
Stark wheeled the bus out of the Lake City neighborhood where a gunman was going on a rampage, randomly shooting at cars on Wednesday afternoon. Stark finally stopped when he was well away from the scene. None of the passengers in his bus were injured, according to King County Metro Transit.
Stark, 53, was hailed as a hero by witnesses and officials, including Mayor Jenny Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine.
“I don’t think any of us can say confidently that we would have the same presence of mind, and courage, to act as he did and get passengers out of harm’s way,” Constantine said at Thursday’s Sound Transit board meeting.
The passenger count is unconfirmed. Transit staff have seen numbers ranging from four to 12, which will be confirmedwhen Metro interviews the bus driver, said Metro spokeswoman Torie Rynning. The executive’s staff said they would try to arrange a future meeting for a passenger who asked to personally thank Stark.
He remained in Harborview Medical Center in satisfactory condition Thursday. He was “in good spirits” and accompanied by family members, said Kenneth Price, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, who visited Stark in the hospital Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, Deborah Judd, a second-grade teacher who was shot while driving her car, is in satisfactory condition after being struck in the arm, shoulder and lung. Judd, age 56, held a news conference at Harborview, in which she called herself “blessed” to survive. “Kids are so traumatized by violence. I want to make sure the kids know I’m OK,” she said.
Stark has been with Metro since 2012. His wife, Kim Stark, is a part-time bus operator, while her brother is a supervisor, and her father and uncle are retired Metro employees.
Wednesday’s incident started just after 4 p.m. when the gunman shot Judd while trying to steal her car.
Stark, lying in a hospital bed, described driving up to the scene in footage aired on KOMO-TV.
Stark said he saw a man running toward his bus. The man then fell to the pavement, he said.
“I stopped (my bus) short, and that’s when I noticed he rolled over on his back, and noticed he had a gun, like a Glock,” Stark said. The shooter stood and fired at Stark as the driver sat behind the wheel.
“The bullet struck me in the left chest,” Stark recalled. “So I ducked down really quick for some cover, did like a two-second assessment of my injuries and figured well, I can breathe, I can think, I can see, and I can talk. So for me that was enough to go ‘OK, I’m getting out of here, I’m going to get these people out of here.’ And the only way to do that was to back up.”
Stark backed the bus up, hoping nobody was behind it, and then drove five or six blocks away, ending at Northeast 125th Street.
“The safety of the passengers is what really stands out,” said Price, the union president. “I think the heroics that he did, to deal with the elements that are out there — we’re very, very proud of him and our profession.”
Police said the gunman then shot and killed a 50-year-old man and stole his car, taking off as officers arrived. Police pursued the gunman for a block and a half before he collided with another car, killing the driver, a 70-year-old man, police said.
The two people killed have been identified as Robert M. Hassan, 76, who died from a gunshot wound to the head; and Richard T. Lee, 75, who died from multiple blunt-force injuries, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Tad-Michael Norman, 33, has been identified by police as the gunman. He has been booked on investigation of murder, assault and robbery, according to King County Jail records.
He is expected to make his first court appearance on Friday, according to King County prosecutors.
Stark, the injured bus driver, lives in the Edmonds area. He has five children and two grandchildren, his Facebook page says.
“He’s a great guy. I’ve always known him as the type of person to give generously for other people, to look out for other people,” said Jim Tinsley, a real-estate broker in South Snohomish County, who knows Stark through church activities. “Anytime somebody came around that had a need, as much as he could help the person, he would.”
Transit managers also met with Stark and colleagues, while his fellow operators and maintenance workers from the North Base in Shoreline are writing thoughts on a card. “We’re here to listen, to help, and support our employees. That message came through very clear,” Price said.
Metro and the union offer counseling by a critical-incident team after violent events. There’s also a two-day training bus drivers take on defusing confrontations, but it wouldn’t cover a random event like Wednesday’s gunfire.
This isn’t the first time a Metro driver was targeted in a shooting.
On Nov. 27, 1998, a passenger aboard Route 359, now the E Line, fatally shot veteran transit operator Mark McLaughlin for no apparent reason and then shot himself. The bus hurtled off the Aurora Bridge into a Fremont apartment roof, injuring 32 passengers while another died from medical complications.
In 2013, a young transit operator driving Route 120 up Seneca Street had a gun pointed at his head by a man who had wounded another Metro driver and was running from police. Police shot the gunman moments later inside the bus.