USA — April Joling’s instincts kicked in after she smelled and saw smoke while driving a busload of kids for Forest Hills Public Schools on Wednesday morning.
Joling, a Lowell woman who is being praised for evacuating a group of about 20 children, thought she smelled something burning near the first stop along her route. The bus’ engine compartment went up in flames in a matter of minutes.
“I didnt wake up this morning thinking that this was going to happen,” Joling said. “I never thought I would have a bus fire.”
Joling, who became a bus driver at the beginning of last year, thought she smelled something burning at start of the route, but she wasn’t sure if the odor came from her bus or nearby vehicle.
By the third stop, she saw smoke coming from the engine compartment. She notified the bus garage of her plans to park at the Forest Hills Aquatic Center, 660 Forest Hill Ave. SE, where kids are picked up along the route’s fourth stop.
“I did not get those kids on my bus,” Joling said. “They alerted me that there were sparks at the wheel. I couldnt see (from) the driver’s seat, and thats when I told the kids that were already on the bus that they needed to evacuate.”
Flames erupted from the engine compartment soon after the kids and Joling got off — an estimated 10 minutes after she first smelled smoke. Students captured photos and videos on their cell phones as the flames grew. Joling was busy calling 911.
“By the time the fire trucks got there, the whole front end was in flames,” she said.
Another bus came to transport the students to school.
School officials on Wednesday morning temporarily removed nine buses that are the same 2005 make and model as the bus that caught fire. The vehicles were pulled as a precaution while investigators work to determine the cause of the blaze.
Bus drivers train three times a year to prepare for emergency evacuations, said Darryl Hofstra, the district’s supervisor of transportation. Joling said similar situations are addressed at training sessions, but it’s impossible to plan for exact scenarios such as Wednesday’s fire. She credited the students for cooperating.
“I saw them this afternoon. I told them what a good job they did on evacuating,” Joling said. “They did a great job of listening to me when I told them we needed to back away further from the bus.”
Other bus drivers for the district praised Joling after hearing of the evacuation, she said. And they plan to give her a nickname for the act. Joling said it was just part of her job.
“It was just, you know, instincts kicking in on what I needed to do,” she said.