HEMET: 26 Students safely evacuated after HUSD bus catches fire

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UPDATE: 10/18/2016 2:40 p.m. With information from HUSD


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Flames and smoke billow from the engine compartment of a burning HUSD bus. Gil Hernandez photo

HEMET – Hemet Unified School District bus drivers receive many hours of training each year to prepare them for different emergency scenarios they may encounter, according to HUSD Public Information Officer Alexandria Cass.

Today, Cristina Dever, Sysonna Allen, and Gabriel Figueroa’s emergency training was put to the test. The three HUSD bus drivers were driving three different buses, but all played a part in making sure nearly 30 students made it to school safely in spite of a fire on one of the buses.

While transporting children to their schools, Allen reportedly looked in her rear view mirror just as Dever was making a turn from Florida Avenue onto Cawston Avenue. As Dever turned the bus onto Cawston, Allen saw flames and smoke billowing out from the back of the other bus.

Allen immediately pulled her bus over, flashed her lights, and waved her hands out the window to get Dever’s attention. When Dever passed Allen’s bus, Allen informed her the bus she was driving was on fire. Dever “snapped into action,” Cass wrote, “and pulled the bus over and asked the students to immediately vacate the bus.”

Students – who were unaware their bus was even on fire – left the bus one-by-one, according to Cass.

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A third bus pulls up to the scene of the emergency to assist the other two bus drivers. Gil Hernandez photo

“Dever’s main focus was to safely get all 26 students off the bus and at a safe distance” from the burning vehicle, Cass explained in a press release about the incident. “As students exited, Dever counted each student to ensure they were all accounted for.”

Meanwhile, Allen told her students to stay on their bus and she grabbed a fire extinguisher from her bus to try to put out the fire.

With help from several helpful citizens, Allen used the fire extinguisher in an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the flames at the back of Dever’s bus.

Figueroa, another HUSD bus driver who was in the area, pulled over to assist his co-workers.

While Dever evacuated students from her burning bus, Figueroa escorted the 26 students onto his bus to make sure they were out of harm’s way. Once students were safely on his bus he assisted Allen in trying to put the fire out.

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City of Hemet firefighters were able to quickly bring the bus fire under control. Gil Hernandez photo

Meanwhile, Dever had re-entered the flaming bus with an unidentified good Samaritan to check and make sure no children had been left behind and were still on the burning vehicle.

Less than a block up the street, a fire engine was pulling out of Hemet Fire Station #3 to report to an unrelated medical aid call.

As they were leaving, they saw flames and smoke coming out of the back of the bus. The Fire Department contacted AMR paramedics to assist in the emergency and immediately responded to the bus fire.

Within minutes, firefighters were able to safely extinguish the flames.

No children, bus drivers, citizens or firefighters were injured during the emergency.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined and is under investigation by CHP.



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With 26 children on board, the bus fire could have ended tragically different. Gil Hernandez photo

HEMET – Three bus drivers and several good Samaritans are being hailed as heroes this morning after their quick and decisive actions possibly saved 26 middle school aged students from being injured after a bus they were riding in caught fire.

The fire and evacuation happened in the area of N. Cawston Avenue and Watts Lane at about 8:30 a.m.

None of the three HUSD bus drivers involved have been officially identified yet, according to Hemet Unified School District Public Information Officer Alexandria Cass, who said an investigation is being conducted by California Highway Patrol and is still underway.

Cass explained the bus that caught fire had 26 students on board at the time of the emergency. The students were being driven to Rancho Viejo Middle School.

As the bus was heading westbound on Florida Avenue the driver of a second bus that was ahead of the first one saw flames and smoke coming from the first buses engine compartment. On HUSD buses the engine compartments are located at the rear of the bus.

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Two bus drivers and several good Samaritans used handheld fire extinguishers to try to control the bus fire. Gil Hernandez photo

The second bus driver pulled over and used her emergency lights and waved her arms to flag down the first driver – telling her the rear of her bus was on fire.

Thinking fast, the driver of the bus that was on fire pulled off the busy main road – State Route 74 – onto N. Cawston Avenue, a small side road, as quickly and safely as possible. Once off the main highway, the bus driver stopped near the intersection of N. Cawston Avenue and Watts Lane.

A third school bus driver who was nearby stopped to help as well.

While the driver of the bus that was on fire began to evacuate the students out through the front door of the bus, at least one citizen and both of the other bus drivers used fire extinguishers to try to knock down the fast growing blaze at the rear of the bus.

The children were quickly and safely evacuated from the bus.

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Despite the efforts of other bus drivers with handheld fire extinguishers, the fire in the buses engine compartment only grew larger. Gil Hernandez photo

Cass explained in a telephone interview that because the engine compartment where the fire originated was in the rear of the bus, none of the students on the bus were even aware of the fire.

They did not become aware of the fire until they had been evacuated from the bus and were being moved to another waiting bus a safe distance from the first bus.

“The driver of the bus that was on fire didn’t want to alarm the students or cause a panic,” Cass explained. “So she didn’t say what was going on as she had the students immediately exit the bus,”

“As the students were exiting the bus the driver was counting as each one got safely off the bus,” according to Cass.

“Once all the students were off the bus, the driver and an unidentified good Samaritan risked their own lives to go back onto the burning bus to check for any students that might have been missed or who were still in danger,” Cass said. “Only once they had double counted the children and re-checked the bus did the driver and citizen leave the bus.”

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It became quickly apparent the handheld fire extinguishers were not working to control the bus fire. Gil Hernandez photo

“The driver chose not to tell the students what was happening until they were all safe and away from the flaming bus because she was concerned that had the students known their bus was on fire, there could have been running and panic and injuries caused by students trying to flee from the flames at the rear of the bus,” Cass stated.

Within moments of pulling over and evacuating the bus, a fire engine from Hemet Fire Station #3, which happened to be leaving the station to go on an unrelated emergency call, saw the smoke and flames billowing from the bus.

According to Cass, the fire engine immediately responded to the bus fire and quickly had the fire under control. They requested additional resources and AMR medics to respond to the location to assess for any possible injuries related to smoke inhalation; however, all the students were deemed to have been uninjured during the emergency.

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City of Hemet firefighters begin to put water on the bus fire to extinguish the blaze. Gil Hernandez photo

“All three of the bus drivers said they didn’t have time to think of the danger, they just went straight into action,” Cass said.

“This is why we train.” Cass explained. “To ensure when our drivers are confronted with these dangerous, emergency scenarios they don’t have to think about how to handle the situation; they are able to just snap into ‘hero mode.'”

“They didn’t take any time to think of themselves,” Cass said. “Their main concern was to just get those children off the bus with no injuries and to make sure nobody was injured in the process.”

No children, bus drivers, citizens or firefighters were injured during the emergency.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined and is under investigation by CHP.


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Contact the writer: trevor.rcns@gmail.com

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Trevor Montgomery spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg in an off-duty accident.

During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including the Robert Presley Detention Center, the Southwest Station in Temecula, the Hemet Station, and the Lake Elsinore Station, along with many other locations.

Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team, Personnel and Background Investigations and he finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator.

Trevor has been married for more than 26 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 12 – soon to be 13 – grandchildren.

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