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Jefferson County Schools bus burns

Driver, mechanic praised for quick action

kids safe

Driver, mechanic praised for quick action

May 23, 2007|by DAVE McMILLION

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CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - There was a mix of high emotions and heroism Tuesday morning when a Jefferson County Schools bus filled with children caught fire as the driver was completing a run along Daniel Road north of Charles Town.

Bus driver Billie Jo Elliott was praised for her quick thinking to get the children off the bus, as was a school bus mechanic who boarded the burning bus to make sure no one was still on it.

After students were evacuated, Richard Bussard put a rag over his mouth, crawled along the floor of the bus and shouted for any remaining children inside, said Robert Boylan, coordinator of transportation for Jefferson County Schools.

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"It was done very quickly and systematically," Boylan said.

Elliott and Bussard were to be honored Tuesday night at a Jefferson County Board of Education meeting.

Before the meeting, Elliott said the students appeared to learn from the many bus evacuation drills she conducted with them.

"They did what they had to do. I'm just grateful they made it off," Elliott said.

The 54 students on the bus - who were headed to T.A. Lowery Elementary School - were taken to Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Ranson, W.Va., to be checked for complications like smoke inhalation and eye irritation, officials said.

All of them were treated and released, officials said.

A large group of parents, children and school officials gathered in and outside of the hospital's emergency room as students were examined.

One of the students, 9-year-old Jordan O'Dea, coughed from the effects of smoke as he recounted his experience of being on the bus.

O'Dea said he first noticed the smell of something burning and then the bus started filling with smoke.

When the bus was being evacuated, O'Dea said he saw flames rising into the cabin of the bus where he was sitting.

"It felt freaky. I looked back and the bus was rising in flames," O'Dea said.

Superintendent of Schools R. Steven Nichols said Tuesday afternoon that school officials believe the fire might have started as a result of a malfunction in a fuel service line.

The bus was engulfed in flames shortly after the children got off it, school officials said.

Smoke trail

Elliott turned on to Daniel Road off Flowing Springs Road at 7:38 a.m. and traveled about a mile when she noticed in her rearview mirror that smoke was trailing the bus, Boylan said. Elliott also noticed that the bus would not accelerate, and the power steering felt heavy and nonresponsive, Boylan said.

After the students were evacuated, another bus was sent to the scene to take the students to T.A. Lowery Elementary School, officials said.

A triage operation was set up at the elementary school, and the highest priority patients were taken to Jefferson Memorial Hospital by ambulance. The rest of the students were taken to the hospital by school buses, Citizens Fire Co. spokesman Ron Fletcher said.

Students waiting to be checked at the hospital sat in school buses parked in the emergency room parking lot. Parents and other relatives of the children milled around in the parking lot. Some were not happy with the way the situation was handled.

Lisa Smith, who lives in Shannondale, W.Va., said her nephew was on the bus. Smith said she believes the students should have received medical attention quicker because young children do not necessarily realize when they might be suffering from serious respiratory distress.

Belinda Engle of Charles Town had three granddaughters riding on the bus. The girls, ages 10, 9, and 6, live with her.

'I got hysterical'

Engle said authorities who notified her about the accident first told her to go to the school. But Engle said she was not allowed to enter school property. Engle said she was told students were being taken to the hospital and she met her grandchildren there.

"I lost it. I got hysterical. I just broke down and started crying," Engle said.

Falen Pritchard of Charles Town said she started "freaking out" when someone told her they heard about the fire on a police scanner. Pritchard, whose 5-year-old son was on the bus, said she called the school and learned the children were being taken to the hospital.

Danielle Kotova, the mother of Jordon O'Dea, said she received word to call the school as soon as possible because they were getting ready to call 911.

When Kotova met her son at Jefferson Memorial Hospital, he was on a stretcher and had a breathing mask on.

"That was not a pleasant sight," said Kotova, who wondered if the children could have been evacuated from the bus faster. "I don't think we'll be riding the bus for a while," she said.

Other parents said they thought the situation was handled well.

Hospital personnel gave bagged lunches to children waiting in the emergency room around lunchtime. The emergency area was a busy scene as children and parents waited for medical personnel to examine the students.

Nichols said he believes the rescue efforts were well-executed. If rescue personnel had taken children in ambulances from the scene, it would have been a drawn-out affair, Nichols said.

Taking the children to the school with another bus allowed rescue personnel to set up a smooth triage process, Nichols said.

Rescue officials used eight ambulances from Jefferson and Berkeley counties to take children to the hospital, and ambulance crews from Washington County were called for backup, Fletcher said.

Officials enacted the county's disaster plan to deal with the situation, which involved calling extra staff to Jefferson Memorial Hospital, Fletcher said.

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