On the morning of Sept. 10, Heidi Ouellette, who began driving for the company last year, had begun her intermediate school route when she turned down a street and saw smoke billowing from the top of a house.
“At first I thought it was coming from the chimney,” she said. But within a few seconds, she realized the severity of the situation: the house was on fire, no one seemed aware of it and no one was emerging from the burning home.
Ouellette stopped, secured her bus and began beeping her horn to alert the neighborhood. She then got off the bus and began yelling for neighbors to call 911. After she reportedly heard someone crying for help, she ran to the rear of the house, where she discovered a woman who had climbed through a window on the second floor of the house and onto the roof to escape the flames.
Ouellette tried to pull a picnic table over to use in an attempt to reach the woman, “but I couldn’t move it — it was too heavy,” she said.
Finally, a neighbor brought a ladder, and the neighbor and the woman's father put it against the house to help her down, but the woman was too afraid to jump down to it. Ouellette coached her. “I just kept talking to her," she said. "I told her to keep sliding her body over to where the ladder was.”
As the woman made her way down, a girl standing near Ouellette told her that her grandmother was in the house.
Ouellette entered the house in search of the grandmother’s room. When she couldn’t find her, she went out and asked the girl again where the woman would be. Ouellette entered the smoky building a second time.
“It was dark, but I got back there,” she recalled. “I saw some movement, and it was the grandmother. She was picking things up to take with her. I said, "We gotta go, come on!”
They managed to safely exit the house.
Ouellette returned to her bus just as fire crews arrived. She stopped to inform an officer of what she had done and continued on her route.
“It all happened so quickly,” she said.
Over the next few days, Ouellette was wondering how the people she helped had fared, until the girl who lived in the house rode Ouellette’s bus later that week.
The driver overheard her telling a friend, “I think that’s the woman who saved my grandmother.”
Ouellette spoke to the girl and learned that the woman on the roof was the girl’s mother, and her grandfather had been the man holding the ladder. Everyone was fine.
Later, as Ouellette was leaving a middle school on her route, a monitor held up the bus and asked her to open her doors. Ouellette saw a woman limping toward her — the girl’s mother. (The Valley Independent Sentinel reports that the woman sustained a minor injury during the fire.)
“She told me, ‘I just wanted to tell you thank you so much,’” Ouellette said. “I said I was glad I could be there. I was just the right person in the right place at the right time.”
Sophfronia Scott is a writer and former school bus driver based in Newtown, Conn. She contributes to company news on the All-Star Transportation website.