Driver averts bus fire injuries

A field trip to the Seattle Center turned into a close call for 43 students aboard an Edmonds School District bus that caught fire on Friday.

Twenty-one students from Cedar Valley Community School in Lynnwood were examined for possible smoke inhalation at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle before being released, said Gayle Everly, the school’s principal.

Everly credited the "quick and calm reaction" of the bus driver and school staff with getting students the from sixth, seventh and eighth grades to safety.

Jim Sartain, 38, who started driving a school bus on April 8, said he drew from his Army experience in which he drove all kinds of vehicles — "just about everything but a tank" — in all kinds of situations.

"I think the special operations training really made me stay calmer," he said.

Around 10 a.m., Sartain and others began smelling something burning while driving on I-5 in Seattle.

He took an exit, and Sartain recognized the smell as burning wires. He could hear the engine revving loudly. "I knew something was extremely wrong, and it was time to get the kids immediately off the bus," he said.

Sartain estimates the students were off the bus 15 to 20 seconds before fire broke in the engine compartment, which is in the middle of the bus. Smoke inside the bus was thick.

He was the last to leave, and as he departed he began hearing a popping sound and directed parents and a teacher to move the students farther away.

Seconds later, he turned around to see the flames. "I looked up and saw the wall of fire go up the side of the bus," he said.

Seattle firefighters were on the scene in minutes and quickly contained the fire.

A second bus on the field trip dropped off its students and returned to pick up the evacuated students.

Sartain credited passersby who called 911 on their cellphones, cooperative students, the driver in the second bus, and staff and parents on board his bus with ensuring that all the students were safe.

He was also thankful the fire happened where it did.

"It would have been extremely dangerous trying to get 43 kids on the side of the highway," he said. "It was extremely busy at that time. It was pretty thick traffic."

In a letter to parents, Everly said students were evaluated by emergency personnel at Seattle Center. As a precaution, 21 students were taken to Harborview for evaluation.

The district believes the fire was caused by a malfunction in the bus’s alternator, said Debbie Jakala, a school district spokeswoman.

The State Patrol is inspecting the 1979 school bus. All buses in the district’s fleet are inspected every 1,000 miles in addition to twice-a-year inspections by the State Patrol.

Sartain said he hopes he can go back to Cedar Valley and talk to the students.

"I would like to tell them that this is something that just doesn’t happen, and don’t be afraid to get on the bus," he said.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or stevick@heraldnet.com.

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