BRANDON – Boarding the bus Monday, 15-year-old Tiara White expected the normal morning ride to Spoto High School.
But as she made her way to her seat, she realized something wasn’t right.
“We smelled fumes,” she said. “I saw sparks coming out of the tail pipe. I thought it was gasoline from the back of the bus. I was really confused.”
The Spoto sophomore was halfway to her seat when the driver turned off the engine and started directing students to evacuate the bus. Someone outside was yelling “fire,” and the students were starting to panic.
“Nobody knew if it was real or not,” Tiara said.
There were no injuries in the fire, which was caused by mechanical problems in the engine. And bus No. 3948, a 2002 Blue Bird, was well maintained, Hillsborough County school district transportation director John Franklin said.
The district’s last school bus fire was about three years ago, he said.
“I don’t know that there was something else we could have done to prevent it,” Franklin said.
Each of the school district’s 1,403 buses gets a safety inspection every 28 days by a certified district mechanic, as required in procedures established by the state, he said.
The bus that caught fire was due for its next inspection this week, Franklin said.
In addition, drivers are required to do a pretrip inspection every time they operate a bus.
A report from the latest state inspection in November shows the bus needed a new light cover – a basic accessory, Franklin said – for the engine compartment. Everything else seemed to be running smoothly.
The frequent, preventative bus maintenance, as well as well-trained drivers, should put any worried parents at ease, Franklin said.
“There’s a lot of components that are built to the overall safety of the bus,” he said. “Most notably I’d say the flame retardant materials and seat cushions and other safety features that should leave parents confident their children are safe on a bus.”
When they got the call at about 7 a.m., Hillsborough County Fire Rescue units responded within minutes and extinguished the blaze.
It happened while the driver was picking up students near the intersection of U.S. Highway 301 and Windermere Lake Drive in Brandon for drop off at Spoto High in Riverview.
A student at the bus stop told the driver the bus was on fire and the driver immediately called 911, began evacuating the 64 students and made sure each was safe.
“She immediately worked on following our safety protocols and did a very nice job,” Franklin said.
As Tiara got off the bus, she remembered the evacuation procedures she and her classmates had practiced during a fire drill at the beginning of the school year.
“I thought about the emergency exits, but I was already as close to the front as I could get,” she said.
About 10 minutes after the fire was put out, the students boarded a new bus and made it to school on time.
“The first thing I did was call my mom and tell her what happened,” Tiara said. “I’m still in shock.”
As for bus No. 3948?
“My gut feeling is that the bus is probably destined for the auction yard,” Franklin said. “But we’ll evaluate it. We’ll determine what salvageable parts are on it. At some point in time, we’ll make a recommendation to the school board that it should be disposed of.”