CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte-Mecklenburg school leaders announced Wednesday a five-point plan in response to recent school bus fires.
The move comes after a school bus caught fire Tuesday afternoon on Westinghouse Boulevard in southwest Charlotte. It was the second school bus fire in less than a month.
“We are unequivocally committed to doing everything possible to protect the safety and well-being of students, whether they be in the classroom, on the athletic field, in any CMS facility, involved in any CMS activity or on a CMS school bus,” said Tracy Russ, chief communications officer.
Officials with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools said no students were on board the bus, No. 188, when the fire started.
CMS officials said the driver stopped the bus after smelling smoke and got out before the vehicle ignited. The driver was not injured, officials said.
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Channel 9 was told that four mechanics from a nearby shop ran to the bus with fire extinguishers, thinking children were in danger, but the bus driver told them no students were on board. Their small extinguishers were no match for the flames, so they had to stand back and watch the bus burn until the fire department arrived and extinguished the flames.
According to investigators, the fire appears to have started in the engine.
"It looks like the fire originated in the engine compartment and spread into the driver's compartment and passengers' compartment of the bus," Senior Fire Investigator David Williams said. "And right now it remains under investigation until we have all representatives together to look into it deeper."
District's response to the school bus fires
CMS officials held a transportation briefing on Wednesday to discuss the recent school bus incidents.
Sixteen students and a driver escaped from a bus after it burst into flames on Oct. 19.
Both buses are Freightliner model FS-65S with a 7.2-liter engine and are more than 15 years old.
Hundreds of buses that are the same make and model and close to the same age as the two buses that caught fire were still transporting students Wednesday.
Eyewitness News reporter Paul Boyd pressed the district for an answer on that decision during the news conference.
"You have 259 of these in service in your district, 3,000 throughout the state. Has there been a conversation about pulling these buses off the roads?" Boyd asked.
"No. Not at this point," CMS Chief Operations Officer Carol Stamper replied.
During Wednesday's news conference, Stamper outlined a five-step plan to ensure student and staff safety.
- Investigation -- CMS has asked the bus manufacturer, senior inspectors from the N.C. Department of Instruction Transportation Division and fire inspectors from the City of Charlotte to conduct an independent investigation into the cause of this fire and to advise us of any possible widespread safety concerns.
- Immediate review -- Maintenance procedures, practices and policies will be reviewed to protect the safety of our passengers and staff.
- We will reinspect all buses of this type as areas of concern from this investigation are identified and we will act as needed.
- Criminal investigation -- CMSPD and CMPD are investigating, including a review of surveillance footage of the bus lot.
- Safety drills -- All drivers and staff will participate in bus emergency-exit procedure drills.
“We want to assure families that CMS buses are safe and we are doing everything in our power to keep them safe,” Stamper said.
The district found "no clear indication" of what caused the fire but ended up inspecting 250 other buses with similar engines. Officials said they inspected all buses and found no trends or patterns.
School officials say they’ll likely reinspect them and have called in experts from the manufacturer to help determine the cause of the fire.
CMS provided Channel 9 with the most recent inspection report for Bus 188, and it was deemed safe to be on the road. Officials said it was a spare bus that did not have an assigned school or route.
The district also provided pictures of the local and state inspectors analyzing the engine compartment of Bus 188 to try and determine what went wrong.
"We understand the concerns of our parents and our families,” said Stamper. “We are as well, and as soon as we have something to act on, we will act.”
CMS officials said they will soon publish a list on their website so parents can see if their child rides one of the buses with the same make and model as those that caught fire.
CMS officials said neighboring school districts are paying close attention to what's happening in Charlotte.
"Just this morning, all of our surrounding counties have contacted our executive director of transportation," Stamper said.
Those other district leaders said they're concerned and asked to be updated by CMS on the school bus issue.
CMS leaders said all of its buses get a complete annual maintenance review, must be inspected every 30 days, and are pulled from service for needed repairs or replacements identified during inspection.
Nationwide Bus Fire Issues
After Tuesday's fire, Channel 9 began searching records nationwide to see what kind of issues this type of bus has have had in the past.
There have been more than a dozen bus fires across the country since Sept. 1.
Channel 9 reached out to the school districts involved in those cases and are still waiting on some responses.
The investigation did find that on Nov. 3, a bus fire in Missouri involved a 2002 Blue Bird bus, and while the make and model are different, the bus had a Caterpillar engine, which is the same brand that was in both of the CMS buses that caught fire.
In Greenville, South Carolina, a school bus caught fire last week.
There are 559 Thomas Freightliners from the mid-'90s with Caterpillar engines still on the roads. Since 1995, South Carolina's Department of Education recorded 108 fires or "dangerous overheating events."
Hundreds of buses with Caterpillar engines have been fitted with sensors to warn drivers about overheating.
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