PLAYING WITH FIRE: What's it going to take for SC to replace old, fire-prone buses?

PLAYING WITH FIRE: What's it going to take for SC to replace old, fire-prone buses?

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Teressa Stroble still remembers the morning of May 9 well.

"My route is in the Greer area," she said. "I had picked them up, and we were on our way back."

It was a pretty typical morning for the District Five School of Spartanburg County bus driver. With a bus full of students, her mind was in the Bible. She'd just finished reading the Book of Chronicles that morning.

"So I was talking to the Holy Spirit about that and thanking Him and all that," she remembered, as she took WIS on a bus ride of her route.

Stroble said the Holy Spirit played a big role in what happened minutes later on that May morning.

"We were almost to school, and I heard something, and so I looked up in my rear-view mirror," she said. "My students are not – they're in assigned seats – they're not allowed to change seats, so I saw a student standing in the back, and my first thought was fighting, but I said, 'What are y'all doing?' And that's when another ninth grader said, 'Ms. Stroble, the bus is on fire.' I think I did like a quick gasp, and I think I need to find a place where I can get them off safely, and I drove a little farther, saw the car wash, pulled up in there, and turned the bus off and just began to evacuate, telling them to, 'Get off! Get off! Get off! Get off! Get off!'"

RELATED: See photos of the flaming bus in Duncan, SC.

Meanwhile, the commotion caught David Porter's attention. He lives across the street from where the bus ended up.

"It couldn't have been more than 45 seconds from the time that I got out of the bed to out my front door, not knowing what I was going to see, so I ran out, and I saw a school bus on fire," he said.

It was a fire so hot and so intense, there was nothing Porter could do but document the carnage – to give the coroner an idea of what exactly happened.

"I thought everyone was dead," he said. "I had that sinking feeling that everyone was dead."

Little did he know, a heroic bus driver, Stroble, had quickly gotten all the students out and led them to a safe distance down the road.

Later that day, she saw Porter's video.

"It was scary. The first time I saw it, I turned my head," she said.

The State Superintendent of Education, Molly Spearman, saw it too.

"Well, I remember the look on my staff's faces when they came in to tell me we've had another incident, and then, when I saw
the video, you know, it was very scary," Spearman said. "Those kinds of things, I don't want to use them as a learning tool. I want to make it an action tool. I want us to do the right thing."

The right thing to Molly Spearman? Replacing buses like the one involved in the Spartanburg County fire – a 1995 Thomas Type D.

Back in the mid-1990's, according to Spearman, the state bought 2,000 of those rear-engine buses. To this day, about half of those are still in rotation across the state. To Spearman, that's a problem.

"The issues are with the engine being in the back, and if they get hot, smoke and that heat can cause problems," she said.

The state calls the fires "thermal events," and there have been 108 since 1995. 86 of those were in Type D buses.

New data sent to WIS details the various bus fires since 2013. Weeks ago, in response to a public records request, the Department of Education sent WIS a spreadsheet of those fires.

The state said a short in the rear heater motor caused the fire in Spartanburg County. Before that, a bus from the Fairfield Shop caught fire at Dutch Fork Elementary. It was also a 1995 Thomas Type D bus.

The document shows a couple more "thermal events" in the Beaufort area over the past few years.

"Positive starter cable came in contact with the engine block," the State wrote of one of those fires. According to the spreadsheet, there have been some in the Richland, Aiken, and Sumter areas too.

"Since 2012, the incidence of thermal events is again on the rise," Spearman concluded in a report from last November.

"We need about $34 million a year dedicated to the replacement of buses," she said.

Months ago, Governor Henry McMaster vetoed more than $20 million in surplus lottery funds that would've gone to buying new buses. As a new year of school begins, lawmakers still haven't taken up that veto.

Even though Spearman hopes lawmakers will override the governor's veto when they return in January, she does agree with the governor's reason for vetoing it. She believes recurring funds, not one-time money, should go to South Carolina's aging school buses.

"We need the legislature to understand that we need a recurring line-item for bus replacement," she said. "The State of South Carolina's growing and the $34 million, really, just meets the replacement for where we are now."

It'll cost about $102 million to replace the Type D 1995 buses alone. It's a bus that Stroble and her students survived on a day that's still burned in her memory.

"One thing that comes back to my mind, when I was in college, I heard a poem a lot,” she concluded.

That poem, penned by Benjamin Mays, sums up her situation that May morning, and as she rescued the students from the burning
bus, she thought of it:

I have only just a minute,
            Only sixty seconds in it.
            Forced upon me, can't refuse it.
            Didn't seek it, didn't choose it.
            But it's up to me
            to use it.
            I must suffer if I lose it.
            Give account if I abuse it.
            Just a tiny little minute,
            but eternity is in it.

By the way, State Superintendent Spearman said riding the bus is still the safest way to get to school. She said only two children have died on a state school bus over the past 40 years, and she said those deaths happened in unpreventable accidents.

But, with an increased number of old buses going up in flames, Spearman is losing sleep, and she said keeping those buses on the road might literally be playing with fire.

One of the most powerful leaders in this state, Senator Hugh Leatherman, told us he hears that bus driver loud and clear as he made this request.

"Today, I plan on calling the legislature back – certainly on the Senate side – to override the governor's veto of $17,500,000 to buy new buses," Leatherman said. "We've got to replace those dangerous buses."

Leatherman said those in the state Senate "want to protect our children."

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