Alani Tuineau was the type of man who lived each day as though it might be his last, and he lived by the mantra “make it right.”
So when Sept. 15 rolled around — the day that actually did end up being the rugby player’s last day on earth — there were few things left undone or unsaid.
Tuineau, his wife, Tina Sione, their young daughter, Pasepa, and several others were traveling back to Las Vegas on Interstate 25 near Santa Fe that Saturday night when the Ford Expedition they were in had a blow out and rolled several times. Tuineau, a Vatos rugby player and passenger in the vehicle, drew his last breath that night, and his wife, who had been driving, his daughter and another passenger sustained serious injuries in the rollover.
Pasepa, a third-grader at Paul D. Henry Elementary, was airlifted to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque where she was taken into surgery for a fractured skull. She had also sustained a broken arm, broken ribs and a large cut on her arm.
Sione, the girl’s mother, was transported to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe with a broken foot and other injuries. David Johnson, another Vatos Rugby player, was also taken to Christus St. Vincent with a bruised vertebrae.
With her husband dead and her daughter lying in an Albuquerque hospital room, Sione had little time to focus on her own recovery. She checked herself out of the hospital on that Sunday and headed to her injured daughter’s side.
Three months after the crash, the wounds — both physical and emotional — have begun to heal, and life is beginning to return to normal for the family. There has also been an outpouring of community support to help get the family back on its feet.
Pasepa has returned to school, where she was elected student council treasurer while she was in the hospital. She underwent three surgeries following the accident.
Like any other 8-year-old she is back to running and playing, although she has frequent doctors visits in Albuquerque.
“She has been healing really fast, and everyone is amazed by her progress,” Sione said.
Before the accident, Sione was the breadwinner while Tuineau was his daughter’s primary care taker and handled household chores like preparing meals and doing laundry.
Sione has continued working at both Team Builders and at the New Mexico Highlands University no-violence office. She has remained in school and expects to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in May. She plans to stay at Highlands and pursue a master’s.
“My life changed in a different way,” she said during an interview this week. “I had to not only continue as the provider, but also the mother and the father. I had to relearn how to cook, do laundry, all the things he was doing for the last four years.”
Remembering Tuineau’s last day is bittersweet for Sione and their daughter.
Tuineau, Sione, Pasepa and fellow Vatos Rugby players and friends headed to Albuquerque that morning to compete against the Brujos of Albuquerque.
“The funny thing is our car wasn’t working for a whole month. We were walking everywhere. We got our car fixed that Wednesday, and Saturday we drove out to Albuquerque,” Sione said. “Alani checked the tires and everything was fine. If it wasn’t OK then he would have told us not to go, but he wanted us to go and be with the guys.”
The Vatos lost that game, but the players and their families took joy in being around one another.
“It was a good day,” Sione said. “All the kids were playing. They still lost, and we still enjoyed our time.”
Pasepa chimed in, saying that day was “horrible.”
Tragedy struck that evening as the family and their friends were heading back to Las Vegas. After the blowout came the sirens and the lights.
The other passengers, including a Vatos player’s wife and their daughters, were able to walk away from the accident with minor injuries.
The crash occurred right before the eyes of several other Vatos who were traveling behind the dark blue Ford Expedition.
Tuineau and Sione’s family soon began arriving from California, Nevada and Utah. Their older son, Johnny, was in Albuquerque with Pasepa. Johnny, 23, made the decision to have his father’s remains cremated.
The days that followed were filled with tears, sadness and pain not only for the family, but also for the Vatos, a tight-knit brotherhood made up of both Highlands students and men who weren’t attending the university.
A memorial service was held about a week after the crash at the Highlands Student Center ballroom.
Tuineau, a native of the islands of Tonga, and Pasepa were inseparable prior to the accident. He walked her the several blocks from their home on Douglas Avenue to school every morning and picked her up in the afternoons. He helped her with her homework, and with creating campaign posters for the student council election.
The death shook those who knew the family and united the various entities. Soon an outpouring of support for the family commenced. Bake sales were held, candlelight vigils were organized and prayers flowed.
The family received a washer and dryer, a television, money and even a replacement vehicle. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints helped the family pay for the funeral.
Those who knew Tuineau say the outpouring of support for his family is fitting because he was known to help anyone and everyone while he was alive.
“Because of the tragedy my family went through, it brought the community and the university together,” Sione said. “The unity was so strong.”
Sione said her love for the city has grown. The family had relocated to Las Vegas from California a little more than a year before the accident.
Sione, a junior college graduate, is very involved at Highlands and even serves on the student senate. She had been accepted at other universities, including Stanford, but chose Highlands because of its low tuition.
“This is home,” Sione said.
Her parents arrived with hopes of taking them back to California, but she declined.
“I told them I am not going anywhere, I am staying right here,” Sione said.
She and her daughter have also welcomed a small furry family member, a dog that they named Alani. They continue to visit the crash site on their numerous trips to doctors’ appointments in Albuquerque.
The Vatos Rugby team captured the High Desert Classic – in honor of their beloved teammate. Johnson has returned to work as an Optic inserter.
Pasepa continues to be a daddy’s girl with her gleaming smile, and warming laugh that brings joy to the family as they prepare for Christmas.
Life continues with Tuineau in their hearts as they strive to live by his mantra: “Make it right.”