A San Mateo native who for years worked for her hometown transit service in San Mateo County was the bus driver killed Thursday in the horrific crash in Orland that claimed 10 lives.
Relatives said 53-year-old Talalelei Lealao-Taiao, a San Mateo High School alum and former longtime employee of SamTrans, was a jovial woman who was the glue of her large, extended family, a cousin said.
Noel Elisaia of San Francisco said he was deeply saddened to hear the news of his "very sweet" cousin's death last week from another cousin. The bus company she last worked for, Silverado Stages, confirmed her death and offered condolences for her and the other victims of the fiery crash between a FedEx semi and a charter bus of mostly high school students along Interstate 5 near Chico.
"I'm just going to miss her smile," Elisaia said Sunday in a phone interview.
Both Lealao-Taiao and FedEx driver Tim Evans, whose truck veered across the median and smashed into the bus, had clean driving records, California's Department of Motor Vehicles told the Sacramento Bee. Lealao-Taiao's license was briefly suspended in 2004,
Lealao-Taiao's mother and Elisaia's father were among nine siblings in their Samoan family and Lealao-Taiao, who was raised in Northern California, was one of two cousins that always brought the extended family together for reunions, funerals or special occasions, he said.
"She called everybody, asked them how they are doing," he said. "If something comes up, like another funeral or anything, then we all get together."
Lealao-Taiao always remembered her cousins birthdays and would text them on that day each year, he said. She had worked for many years with SamTrans before driving charter buses.
Lealao-Taiao, who lived in the Sacramento area, was married, had two children and recently became a grandmother, Elisaia said. When she learned she had a young grandson and met him just days or weeks before the bus crash, she was ecstatic and posted the photos on Facebook, he said.
"She was so happy that she was blessed with a grandkid," he said.
Mercury News staff writer Robert Salonga contributed to this report.