Band members recall terrifying bus fire

May 10, 2010 4:43:59 PM PDT
Parents had tears in their eyes as they wrapped their arms around their children -- happy to see them all safe, after a near disastrous bus trip. It's a touching story we first brought you Sunday night on Eyewitness News at 10pm. That bus caught fire in Louisiana as Pershing Middle School students were returning from a band competition in Florida. Now we're getting more firsthand accounts and details on the bus company's safety record.

The bus company is called Coach USA, and they tell Eyewitness News that the driver has four years with the company and that he has a clean driving record with them. They say they believe this fire was unavoidable after a tire blew out. While they declined to talk to us on camera, some of the people who were on that bus are talking.

Pershing Middle School band members had a calmer day after enduring a frightening ordeal. Their charter bus was nothing but a burned out shell, just minutes after they escaped.

Band member Max Muilenburg recalled, "One of the tires popped, and the bus started shaking back and forth."

"I was sleeping, and then I heard, like, a big pop," said band member Enrique Dosa.

Assistant Principal Daniel Fiorella said, "All of a sudden, you hear a pop. Then you hear thump, thump, thump."

The bus was en route to Houston from Orlando, where the band won first place and grand prize in a competition. Fiorella was in the second row when he noticed a tire had blown out and caught fire. While one chaperone got out a fire extinguisher, he told the driver to stop and help the students get out.

Fiorella said, "He was slowing down, but he's not stopping. Then all of a sudden you can smell the burning rubber. The driver looked in the side view mirror and he said, 'It's on fire.'"

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the company operates 105 buses and has a satisfactory rating. In the last 24 months, Coach USA has had five crashes ? two with injuries and three in which vehicles had to be towed. In 15.4 percent of its random roadside inspections, Coach USA vehicles were taken out of service for safety violations.

The company's record beats the national average, but it's not much comfort to band members. Gone are about 30 instruments and everything the kids had with them. But they are all very glad to be alive.

"Thankfully we all got away, counting our blessings so we could be home on Mother's Day," said band member Lawrence Garvin.

The NTSB says it is not investigating this fire. But another federal agency is still trying to determine if it will investigate.


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