Eric Stark hit the emergency alert button, clasped his right hand to his chest to stanch the bleeding, and with his left hand steered his 40-foot bus blindly in reverse.
A King County Metro bus coordinator, recognizing the emergency signal, radioed in.
“So I picked up the handset and I just really quickly said, three times, ‘I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot,’ ” Stark said. “I dropped the handset and went back to steering the coach.”
Stark’s quick thinking enabled him to get his bus and its 10-or-so passengers away from the gunman who fired twice through the bus windshield and then killed two other people in north Seattle on Wednesday.
Tad-Michael Norman, 33, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder in the rampage that left Robert Hassan, 76, and Richard T. Lee, 75, dead in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood.
Stark, 53, who’s been driving Metro buses since 2012, told his story from Harborview Medical Center on Friday, where he is recovering from a gunshot that entered his chest, exited under his arm and then lodged in his biceps.
He’s been moved from the intensive-care unit and is “doing great,” said Dr. Bryce Robinson, an associate medical director for critical care at Harborview/UW Medicine.
Stark was driving his Route 75 bus south toward the University District at around 4 p.m. Wednesday, when he saw someone running toward him who looked like he was trying to catch the bus.
“He tripped and fell and just face-planted the pavement and I thought, oh no, the guy’s probably hurt, he’s probably going to need medical attention,” Stark said. “I saw him roll over onto his back and his arm was out to the side and I thought, is that a gun in his hand?”
Then the man calmly stood up, got into a shooting stance and fired through the bus windshield.
“He didn’t seem panicked or crazy or anything, he just seemed very calm like he was shooting a paper target at the range,” Stark said.
He heard the gunfire. He saw the glass break. He felt like he was hit in the side with a baseball bat.
“The first thing I thought was, I’m not afraid to die, I’m a Christian. But I said to myself, I don’t want to die today,” Stark recalled. “The second thought was, I’ve got to get these people to safety.”
He got as low as he could, ducking down behind the farebox, which he figured was a “big hunk of metal” and the best thing around to stop more bullets.
“I did a two-second assessment and I said, OK, I can breathe, I can move my fingers and toes, I can see, I can think and I can talk,” Stark said. “OK, that’s good enough, we’re getting out of here.”
Stark steered a block or so in reverse on Sand Point Way Northeast, until he could see, out the passenger door, a side street to turn onto. But he couldn’t clear the corner, and needed to throw it in reverse again.
“This is the only time I felt panicky,” Stark said. “I could not get the coach in reverse.”
Bus drivers rarely, if ever, use reverse. They’re taught how to do it in training, “but they tell us never back up,” Stark said.
He remembers at least one passenger, maybe two, saying “let us off the bus.”
“I certainly thought to myself, there’s no way I’m letting you off this bus, the safest thing for us is to get out of here.”
When he finally was able to turn on the side street, he drove about eight blocks before parking at a bus stop and waiting for help to arrive.
Later, after he’d been stabilized at Harborview, he was visited by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Metro leadership.
“You parked in a bus zone and you secured the coach,” he recalled them asking him, with incredulous amazement. “What were you thinking?”
“I said, that’s what I’m trained to do, right?”
Stark, a married father of five, says he’s the kind of guy who reads the lifeboat plans on ferries and reads the seat-back emergency card on airplanes. But he also cries at Disney movies.
He was a pastor for 20 years before becoming a bus driver. He’s also worked as a UPS driver and a grocery-store seafood manager.
Robinson, the doctor, said that Stark could be released from the hospital in the next couple of days.
He wants to get back to driving the bus as soon as possible.