NANAKULI - A freak gust of wind sent 13 utility poles crashing onto Farrington Highway yesterday, trapping motorists under live power lines but causing no serious injuries.

The huge wooden poles splintered in two about 1 p.m., some crushing cars, and fell across all four lanes of the highway in what many said looked like a hurricane scene - or a disaster movie.

"This was a cross between 'War of the Worlds' and 'Earthquake,' " said Bernie Baker, contest director for the Triple Crown of Surfing who had been at the Buffalo's Big Board Surfing Classic in Makaha.

The incident closed a half-mile stretch of Farrington Highway between Haleakala Avenue and Lualualei Naval Road, cutting off access to the Wai'anae Coast until the Army opened Kolekole Pass to civilian traffic about 2 p.m. That bypass was to remain open until at least through today's morning rush hour, officials said.

Police said crews were also trying to open two town-bound lanes of Farrington Highway by this morning, but could not say exactly when that would happen. One cause for worry, police said, is that some poles left standing may have been weakened.

Police said 20 vehicles were damaged. Laurie Grace, emergency medical services supervisor for Nanakuli, said EMS did not take anyone to the hospital.

A pole flattened the roof of a Chevy Astro van down to the window sills, but the three people inside escaped with only a scrape to the shoulder of driver Dexter Li'i.

"The first thing I did was yell, 'Are you two OK?' " Li'i said of his passengers, La Aukai and Daryl Ching. "And they both said yeah. My door was already open and I got out and told everyone around me, 'I got two passengers in here' and right away a whole lot of people came and helped get them out."

Aukai, who was sitting in a back seat, said she saw the pole falling "and I screamed, 'It's coming!' "

Pointing to the occupants of the Astro, Grace said, "These guys have angels watching over them."

The poles carried power lines of 12,000 volts and 46,000 volts, Hawaiian Electric Co. spokesman Ben Obayashi said.

Police Lt. Farrell Sojot said police were concerned about keeping people away from the power lines because some wires were sparking.

"Initially the lines were still hot, so we couldn't even get to the people inside (the cars)," Wai'anae watch commander Lt. Frank Pugliese said. "We told everybody to stay in place. But then HECO cut the power."

Fire battalion chief Eric Adams said: "It's like a hurricane hit. It's amazing there are no injuries and with all the power lines down nobody got shocked. Two cars are crushed."

National Weather Service lead forecaster Roy Matsuda said radar spotted 45 mph trade winds coming from the east between 12:30 and 1 p.m., about one mile in altitude.

"When a 45 mph wind dips down from aloft, it can accelerate to higher speeds," Matsuda said. "It is freakish, out of the norm."

HECO spokeswoman Sharon Higa said, "It is a rare and unusual circumstance. Poles are designed to withstand 80 mph winds, which is near hurricane-type conditions. It's hard to say what factors caused the poles to fall. It is under investigation."

About 700 HECO customers lost power at the outset; about 225 customers remained without power at 8 last night, Higa said.

HECO had 36 repair workers at the scene last night, Higa said.

Adams said one severed pole looked like it had termite damage.

Rodney Amalza, 22, of Mililani, was driving home from Wai'anae in a Ford Expedition SUV with his 14-month-old daughter when the wind came up and knocked down a pole.

"After that, it was just like dominos," Amalza said. "Everything was going down; it was real fast. The second pole I saw go down landed on the roof of the car in front of me. The wires were coming down, the bucket on the poles and all the stuff were hitting cars.

"About five power lines landed on my car; there were two on the hood and some on the passenger-side mirror. It was spooky because I saw sparking."

He and his daughter stayed in the vehicle until he was told HECO had turned off the power.

Police said a fallen pole damaged a house at 87-2130 Farrington Highway. As the pole snapped, the broken end kicked back and hit the house, cracking a wooden wall.

Three witnesses told police that a "twister" came through from the mountains, Sojot said. "One witness said a tree got blown down and then the pole started coming down on Nanaikeola Street. There was a domino effect from there."

But EMS supervisor Grace said she saw the poles come down and "it wasn't a domino effect. They just all came down at once - whump!"

"It was crazy," said Darlene Aweau, who had been sitting in her Nissan pickup parked on the makai side of Farrington Highway. "The wind was shaking the truck and sand was just flying through the window. And the pole snapping made the biggest noise, like a tree breaking."

Of the 20 vehicles involved, three suffered major damage, police said.

Nanakuli resident Manu Afong said he saw blue flames shoot from electrical boxes after the poles crashed to the ground. Traffic was immediately gridlocked, he said.

"There's no way in or out," Afong said.

Large vehicles such as buses were not able to use the steep, winding Kolekole Pass emergency route. Oahu Transit Services bus route No. 40 to the Wai'anae Coast was taking riders in as far as it could on Farrington Highway. Passengers were then walking a ways to shuttle buses running on the Wai'anae side.

Kaiser Permanente's Nanaikeola Clinic at 87-2116 Farrington Highway will be closed today, spokeswoman Lynn Kenton said. Staff should report to the Waipio Clinic at 94-1480 Moaniani St. Patients may call 432-3500.

Nanakuli resident Fale Esekia was driving home from church with her mother when the poles fell, stranding them at Nanakuli Shopping Center. "This is worse than Hurricane Iniki," she said. "Wai'anae got hit hard by that storm, but it was nothing like this.

"It's a miracle that no one got killed."

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