Deona Washington has been driving for Durham Public Schools in North Carolina for 11 years. The district credits her with saving her 28 passengers from harm after Bus No. 131 caught fire on an afternoon route.  -  Source: Wes Platt

Deona Washington has been driving for Durham Public Schools in North Carolina for 11 years. The district credits her with saving her 28 passengers from harm after Bus No. 131 caught fire on an afternoon route.

Source: Wes Platt

It seemed like just another normal afternoon route for Deona Washington on Feb. 16 as she drove a school bus loaded with Durham Public Schools students beneath a sunny, blue sky. Bus No. 131 was just a few miles from my house, following its usual route from Brogden Middle School.

She stopped the bus, ready to drop off one of the 28 young passengers, and noticed the smoke from the engine compartment.

She kept calm. She told her passengers: “Everybody, let’s go.” She ushered them off through the back door, got them to a safe spot, and had them start writing their names on paper. Then Washington turned and saw the bus fully engulfed in flames.

She’s worked for the North Carolina school district for 11 years. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before, she said, but she had trained for emergencies.

“We practice this numerous times through the year,” she told reporters at a media event at Brogden, where her students gave her flowers, and the principal presented her with a T-shirt celebrating her heroism.

“Nobody panicked,” Washington said. “I kept them calm. That was my main goal. If I keep them calm, and I can stay calm, then it’d be a smooth ride.”

No one was hurt in the conflagration that consumed Washington’s bus. The incident remains under investigation at this writing. The fire’s cause has not yet been reported.

When it comes to evacuating a school bus during a fire, the primary requirement for a bus driver is to maintain that calm, because panic can lead to confusion and increase the risk of injury.

Other key steps:

  • Passengers should follow the driver’s instructions.
  • Use emergency exits.
  • Stay low to avoid smoke inhalation. Crouch or crawl, if necessary.
  • Leave stuff behind. Books can be replaced.
  • After leaving the bus, designate a safe meeting point away from the vehicle and stay together.
  • Once clear of the bus, call emergency services to report the incident and your location.

Dramatic as this fire might have been, it’s important to keep in mind how relatively rarely this happens. And, as always, school buses remain the safest mode of transportation for children getting from home to school and back every day.

I remain impressed by the matter-of-fact heroism that’s often demonstrated by school bus drivers like Deona Washington who are caught in these situations where the best of us might lose our cool and panic. But, then again, bus drivers are a unique breed. They work well with routines but also prepare regularly for the unexpected. It really shouldn’t come as any surprise.

Her greatest motivation for how she acted that day, though?

“I love the kids,” she said. “Love the kids.” Her smile broadened. “Love the kids.”

Reach out to School Bus Fleet Executive Editor Wes Platt at wes.platt@bobit.com.

About the author
Wes Platt

Wes Platt

Executive Editor

Wes Platt joined Bobit in 2021 as executive editor of School Bus Fleet Magazine. He writes and edits content about student transportation, school bus manufacturers and equipment, legislative issues, maintenance, fleet contracting, and school transportation technology - from classic yellow diesel buses to the latest EPA-funded electric, propane, and CNG vehicles.

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