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Charleroi Area bus destroyed by fire; kids safely evacuated

| Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
A Bentleyville volunteer firefighter extinguishes a Charleroi Area school bus fire that ignited around 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16 on Huber Road in West Pike Township. Bus driver Eva Harris, 50, of Fallowfield Township, was able to safely evacuate 18 students moments before the bus burst into flames.
By Wayne Ray
A Bentleyville volunteer firefighter extinguishes a Charleroi Area school bus fire that ignited around 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16 on Huber Road in West Pike Township. Bus driver Eva Harris, 50, of Fallowfield Township, was able to safely evacuate 18 students moments before the bus burst into flames.
Firefighters from Bentleyville and Fallowfield Township monitor a Charleroi Area bus fire that broke out around 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16 on Huber Road in West Pike Township. Bus driver Eva Harris, 50, of Fallowfield Township, was able to safely evacuate 18 students moments before the bus burst into flames.
Firefighters from Bentleyville and Fallowfield Township monitor a Charleroi Area bus fire that broke out around 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16 on Huber Road in West Pike Township. Bus driver Eva Harris, 50, of Fallowfield Township, was able to safely evacuate 18 students moments before the bus burst into flames.
Smoke permeates from a Charleroi Area bus that caught fire around 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16 along Huber Road in West Pike Township. Bus driver Eva Harris, 50, of Fallowfield Township, was able to evacuate 18 kids safely.
Smoke permeates from a Charleroi Area bus that caught fire around 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16 along Huber Road in West Pike Township. Bus driver Eva Harris, 50, of Fallowfield Township, was able to evacuate 18 kids safely.

A Charleroi Area school bus driver is being lauded for safely evacuating 18 students moments before their bus burst into flames Wednesday afternoon in West Pike Township.

No one was injured and firefighters from Bentleyville and Fallowfield Township were able to quickly extinguish the blaze.

But Eva Harris, 50, of Fallowfield Township, said she had little time to react after pulling over her bus along Huber Road. Harris said she was losing power coming up a hill and parked near Bentleyville Wesleyan Church when she realized it was not a maintenance problem.

“I'm thinking I'm going to call the garage and have them send me another bus … when the front end started smoking and the smell was coming through the shifter,” Harris said. “I didn't know if it was going up in flames so my first thought was, ‘Get the kids out and do it fast!'”

Harris directed 17 elementary students and one high school student one-by-one out the front door and to the nearby church located near the border of Fallowfield and West Pike Run townships. Most of the kids were seated near the front of the bus, Harris said.

“I told them, ‘OK. There's probably a fire. You know what to do,' and they did,” said Harris, who then grabbed the two-way radio and announced “Bus fire on Huber Road!”

“It was basically a the-quicker-the-better kind of thing. The kids knew exactly what to do and they did it.”

While the bus garage contacted fire authorities, Harris herded the children toward the church.

“I tried to calm them down and I looked up at the bus and started seeing flames come from underneath,” she said. “I told them, ‘C'mon we're going behind the church.' I didn't know if something was going to explode and I basically didn't want the kids to see it.”

After the fire was extinguished, a new bus arrived, along with Charleroi Area Superintendent Dr. Brad Ferko and transportation director Keith Boord.

One of the mothers nearby posted the incident on Facebook and most of the kids were cleared to leave with their parents, Harris said. Ferko rode back with the remaining students on the new bus.

Students participate in bus fire drills twice a year per state law and they put that practice to good use Wednesday, Ferko said.

“She (Harris) was not only able to get the kids off the bus, but did so calmly and took them behind the church so they would not see the bus burning,” Ferko said. “She did an excellent job and should be credited for her fast action. She is a hero.”

Boord said the bus is a total loss, and although a cause has not been determined, he suspected it to be electrical in nature.

“Eva did one heck of a job getting the kids off quickly and safely,” Boord said. “Everyone is to be commended.”

Harris said she was still a bit shaken Wednesday night after seeing pictures of the charred bus posted on Facebook. Harris, who had two children attend Charleroi Area schools, said she thinks any bus driver would've reacted the same way.

“I'm mainly worried about the kids, I just hope they're okay from going through this today,” she said. “At least I know they're OK physically … I'm very proud of my kids and I'm glad they're all safe and sound.”

Bentleyville fire Chief Ron Sicchitano Sr. was unavailable for comment Wednesday evening.

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635.

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