State inspector investigates how massive school bus fire started

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A state inspector visited Charlotte Monday to investigate how a massive school bus fire started.

More than a dozen South Mecklenburg High School students were on board a school bus last Thursday afternoon in east Charlotte when a fire broke out.

Channel 9 obtained video of the dramatic scene from a witness, which showed flames and smoke engulfing school bus No. 364 on Dunlavin Way.

Investigators said the fire started in the engine.

The state inspector searched the bus’s engine compartment Monday to determine where the fire started. According to state officials, the inspector found “an area of interest.” Officials said no problems have been found in other buses at this point, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials plan to have technicians continue to inspect similar vehicles.

State officials said they’ll check in with CMS as inspections progress to see if there are any issues that need to be addressed more broadly.

Channel 9 reporter DaShawn Brown learned the bus was last inspected two weeks ago, according to a section chief from the state's transportation agency.

The driver smelled smoke, immediately stopped the bus and evacuated all the students, CMS officials said.

Paramedics treated one person for smoke inhalation, but the person is expected to be OK.

"We are all grateful that every student and the driver are safe. The district trains bus drivers and CMS staff to respond in emergency situations and the district is proud of the quick action of this driver and also thankful for the swift cooperation of students on board. The district holds the safety of all our kids and staff as top priority and will conduct a thorough review to ensure the continued safety of our CMS students and staff," Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said in a statement.

CMS Transportation is conducting an investigation of the incident, which will include a review of the inspection and maintenance records of the bus.

“Until we determine really the source of the fire, and we may not be able to fully determine the source of the fire, it would be hard to even tell whether this was a failure of the inspection or simply an equipment issue," Kevin Harrison, the section chief of North Carolina Department of Public Instruction - Transportation Services told Channel 9.

A replacement bus was sent to pick up the students and continue the route.

"It scares me a lot,” CMS parent Gladys Godfrey told WSOC. “Thank God that nobody got hurt this time. I don't think they have the capability or the manpower to keep up the maintenance with these buses, because if they did we wouldn't be having this problem.”

“Even if they have to get new buses, that's something they should be thinking about,” parent Temoe Cooper said.

Student Timoni Rushing said the bus was making clicking sounds and even broke down minutes before the fire.

“And that's when the front just exploded,” Rushing said.

Rushing said the bus driver got the bus to restart and kept going before the bus burst into flames.

“Well (it) actually looked like it was about to explode. We didn't know,” Rushing said. “I'm still pretty in shock. I'm just glad everybody got off safely."

CMS sent Channel 9 this statement about the incident:

"As with any incident related to the safety and welfare of CMS students and staff, Thursday's fire on board school bus #364 is of major concern for the district. We are grateful that the bus driver and the 16 students on board responded quickly, were unharmed, and returned to their homes and families safely.

"Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is committed to safe transportation services for the more than 125,000 students on board CMS vehicles each day. All CMS buses undergo a complete annual maintenance review, are required to be inspected every 30 days and are pulled from service for needed repairs or replacements identified by inspection. CMS Transportation maintenance staff completed a routine 30-day inspection for bus # 364 on October 6, 2017 and the bus was returned to service after routine maintenance services were performed.

"A multi-party investigation to determine the cause of the fire on board bus # 364 is underway. As part of this active investigation by CMS transportation staff and maintenance and safety experts, CMS Transportation has requested and will receive assistance from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's school bus transportation division. CMS Transportation has also requested the assistance of a fire inspector from the Charlotte Fire Department in the investigation.

"Results of this investigation will be released as they are available and CMS will respond as needed to protect the safety of CMS students and staff across the district.”

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