It’s a rare instance where smoking actually saved his life.
Marc Hoobler was riding on the top deck of the Cat Tracker on Nov. 18, 2006, when at the exact moment the double-decker bus passed under the 15-foot bridge on Iowa Street at the Irving Hill Road overpass, he crouched down to shield from the wind a cigar he was trying to light.
“The first thing I remember was a loud banging noise, the sound of metal being pounded on,” Hoobler said while testifying Wednesday morning in Douglas County District Court. “The four guys up front were trying to get the bus to stop.”
Hoobler said he immediately looked for his friend and business associate, John Green, who had been standing about a foot away on the top deck of the Cat Tracker, and he was no longer there.
Green, who was 27, was killed almost instantly when he struck his head on the bridge as the bus attempted to pass underneath it on its way to Memorial Stadium for the Kansas University vs. Kansas State game that Saturday morning.
Another man, Chris Orr, was critically injured. Hoobler recalled seeing Orr lying face down and bleeding after the accident.
The force of the impact pushed Green over the railing onto the lower deck below. Forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz testified that Green had a “defensive wound” on the outside of his right hand, as if he saw the bridge out of the corner of his eye and put his hand up to protect his head.
Green’s widow, Samantha Green, who was pregnant at the time of the accident, filed a lawsuit in Douglas County District Court against the driver of the bus, as well as against the owners, operators and manufacturers of the Cat Tracker II.
Of the nearly dozen defendants in the case, all settled out of court except Briggs Auto Group of Manhattan.
Testimony in the civil case began Wednesday morning, with attorneys from both sides making their opening statements.
“This bus was in a defective condition when it left the control and custody of Briggs Auto Group,” attorney for the plaintiff James Thompson told jurors. “This tragedy was foreseeable.”
Thompson said during his opening statements that jurors will have an opportunity to view the actual Cat Tracker during the course of the trial.
He said the bus had a history of traveling to away games, always with passengers riding on the top deck, loud music playing and plenty of revelry.
“There was a way this bus rolled all the time,” Thompson said. “It was meant to come into an opposing team’s town and let everyone know they were there.”
But Thompson also told the jury that although this was a “party bus,” alcohol did not play a part in Green’s death.
The group on board that day was associated with Syngenta Crop Protection, where Hoobler and Green both worked. They had purchased the trip on the Cat Tracker to the game in Lawrence for $5,000 from a Cat Backer Auction and had invited about a half-dozen of their clients.
“It was a festive atmosphere, but we were all mature adults,” Hoobler said.
Other witnesses riding on top of the bus described the mood as jovial, with loud music playing. Several members of the group said they had consumed a couple of beers in the morning, but that no one seemed drunk.
Hoobler also testified that they were under the impression their group would be the only one on the Cat Tracker that day, but as the bus made several stops in Topeka and Lawrence, more and more passengers got on. By the last stop at the Miller Mart in Lawrence, there were roughly 22 passengers riding the bus, forcing the Syngenta group up to the top deck.
Jerry Brown, an Emporia resident whose company had a business relationship with Syngenta, told jurors a person on the ground at the Miller Mart had yelled up to the riders on top of the bus to look forward — that the bus sits higher than one would think.
“That individual probably saved my life,” said Brown, who had previously testified that he tried to shout a warning to others on the roof to get down after seeing the overpass coming ahead.
Hoobler said earlier in the trip he had approached the driver and asked him whether it was OK to go outside.
The driver nodded, according to Hoobler.
“At any point in time on Nov. 18, did you feel like you shouldn’t be up there?” Thompson asked Hoobler.
“I felt safe,” he replied. “I never felt like I was in any danger.”
The trial will likely boil down to one issue: Who owned the bus at the time it was modified into the Cat Tracker?
Briggs Auto Group purchased the 1988 yellow school bus for $1,000 in August 2003 from Harden, Ky. Attorneys for the plaintiff claim the transfer of ownership to Manhattan attorney Robert Pottroff did not occur until February 2005, well after the modifications to the bus were made.
But Briggs’ attorney Larry Tyrl said the bus was given away as a 50th birthday present on Aug. 17, 2003.
“Briggs Auto Group is not in the business of fabricating, converting, re-manufacturing buses and selling them,” Tyrl said during his opening statements.
The trial is expected to last at least a week and a half. Thompson said he hopes to present to jurors a complete picture of who the victim was and what his loss means to his family.
“You will know who he is. If nothing else occurs this week, you will know who this man was, who this husband was and who this future father was going to be,” Thompson said.