What was going on was a terrible civil war that continues in the Western African nation.
Hali, 19, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound sophomore nose tackle for Penn State, was in the truck along with his mother, Rachel Keita, and his older brother, also named Tamba. They escaped to a mud hut in the countryside.
"After the war started in 1989 we had to go into hiding," Hali said in his lilting accent. "We did that twice, and then the third time we fled the country. There was a lot of killing going on. Sometimes, you would see skeletons of people stacked up."
After escaping to the Ivory Coast, Hali's biological father, Henry, filed to bring his two sons to the United States, where he had moved. Hali, 9, and his brother joined their father in 1994. He spoke English, the language of Liberia, formed as a colony for freed American slaves in 1821, but couldn't read or write it.
But Hali quickly became a top-notch student. His father is a professor of chemistry and physics who teaches at both Teaneck High School in New Jersey and Fairleigh Dickinson University, also in Teaneck.
Unfortunately, Hali's mother has yet to make it to the United States. He said she returned to Liberia from the Ivory Coast with her husband. Occasionally, news of her plight gets back to Hali through his brother. Last he heard, she had been wounded in the leg by two gunshots.
"I called my brother yesterday," Hali said Tuesday. "We haven't heard from her. After the Ivory Coast she lived in Ghana, but I think her husband wanted to go back to Monrovia. Things had quieted down, but then the war started up again. She's trying to get out of the country."
Hali's biological parents never married. After coming to the United States, his father married an American woman.
Hali's voice lowers when he answers questions about his mother, whom he hasn't seen since he came here. "I'm worried about her, but there is nothing I can do right now," he said. "All I can do is live my life."
Hali is making the most of his opportunity. He is majoring in information and science technology, and has earned the starting job at nose tackle, a position he admits he hated at first.
At Teaneck High, he was so impressive at defensive end that SuperPrep magazine rated him the No. 3 lineman prospect in the country. He didn't play football until his freshman season at Teaneck, where he was more interested in basketball.
"When I got to high school my basketball coach told me I should play football," he said. "I didn't understand the game. Every play, I'd ask a friend, 'Warren, what do we do?' All they told me was hit whoever had the ball, and that's all I did. It turned out pretty well."
With his tremendous speed, Hali figured to be a defensive end for the Nittany Lions. But he was moved to the middle of the line to back up Anthony Adams, a 300-pounder who was drafted in the second round by the 49ers. Hali played in all 12 games last season, but struggled at only 265.
Hali is part of a young defensive line that has struggled to stop the run. He missed most of the Nebraska game two weeks ago after spraining his ankle. He returned Saturday against Kent State and said he'll be at full strength for Saturday's Big Ten Conference opener against Minnesota at Beaver Stadium. He'll need to be. The No. 24 Golden Gophers (4-0) are No. 2 in the nation in rushing.
"I don't feel we're where we need to be, but we're going to where we can be," he said of the defensive front. "I feel it's not going to be long. I think we have a lot of potential. "
As for the experience he endured in his native country, Hali said: "I think it helped make me a man. I was away from my dad, and now I'm away from my mom, so I had to learn to do a lot of things on my own."
Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or email@example.com.