SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KTVU) - A school bus carrying deaf students caught fire on the Richmond -San Rafael Bridge Friday afternoon, causing some scary moments for them and a massive backup for commuters.
The bus was taking residential students from the California School for the Deaf in Fremont to their hometowns in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.
The long drive got even longer when the bus engine caught fire, and the students were stranded for two hours, waiting for another bus to arrive and continue their journey.
"School bus on fire, the worst call," said San Rafael Fire Captain Ryan Goodwin, whose crews were relieved to find the bus upright, and the occupants already safely disembarked when engines arrived.
The rear of the bus and much of the cabin were fully engulfed, so firefighters broke windows to clear smoke and search the aisles before putting the fire out.
"The kids seemed a little panicked, but calm," said Captain Goodwin, "being from the School for the Deaf, we had some challenges communicating with them, getting them off the freeway, but everyone did well."
The students, middle and high school age, called their parents to explain the delay.
"We all kind of took care of each other," said 16-year-old Alex Horrell-Schmitz, as she looked inside the charred bus after it was pushed off the bridge.
"I was lying down, sleeping actually," she said, pointing to a rear seat covered in broken glass and burned upholstery. "My friends woke me up, just kind of hit me, and said, 'Get up, get up, we have to go.'"
The feeling was all too familiar for Horrell-Schmitz, who lives in Santa Rosa, and is a survivor of last year's firestorm.
"I freaked out that it was a fire, because our home burned last year, and it was traumatic," she said.
First responders were slowed getting to the bus, because they had to drive the wrong direction on the bridge deck during 2:30 p.m. traffic.
"The kids did pretty well," said Marin CHP Officer Stephen Marek,” “And they didn't seem scared or anything. They handled themselves pretty well."
Officer Marek also had praise for the 26-year-old charter bus driver who remained composed and got the bus to the shoulder and evacuated as flames shot out the back.
"I just wanted to make sure everybody was safe," driver Erin Smith said, as she waited with the passengers.
Smith expressed gratitude to a stranger who pulled over to move everyone off the bridge.
"Somebody actually gave us a ride in a pickup truck, and loaded all the kids up and brought us over here, so that was nice of him," she explained.
Another good Samaritan dropped his fishing pole to assist.
"I was thinking, there may be a lot of kids in there, so I rushed over to make sure everybody got off the bus safe," said Tony Duong of Petaluma, who fishes almost daily on the bay as he drives home from work in Richmond.
A parent himself, Duong feared the bus was full.
"I see a lot of buses go by here, and usually it's the whole class, you know, going on a field trip," he said.
But on the TransMetro Charter bus that burned, there were only ten people on board. And only Alex lingered in the ruined bus for a closer look.
"This is exactly what it looked like, at my home, after the fire," she mused, realizing that not every fire ends in disaster.
Finally, a new bus arrived, and the students resumed their travels, late but with an adventure story to share.
"I feel sad for the kids because they are getting home late," said Sultana Peku, their chaperone from the California School for the Deaf. "But everything is fine, they are safe, and that is number one: safety."
Erin Smith, who has five years of bus driving experience, took the wheel of the new bus, ready to finish her trip.
Every Friday,15 buses depart the East Bay campus, fanning out to communities from Fresno to Redding, so students have home visits for the weekend.
Fortunately, incidents like the bus fire are a rarity.