STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Bus driver, student recall escape from fire

Kevin McKay is being hailed a "bus driver from heaven" after he drove a school bus filled with children along gridlocked and dark roads as pockets of fire burned all around.

Posted: Nov 19, 2018 7:01 PM
Updated: Nov 19, 2018 7:33 PM

Kevin McKay drove the school bus along gridlocked, dark roads as pockets of fire burned all around. Nearly two dozen elementary school children were on board with him.

Smoke began to fill the bus, so McKay took off a shirt. He and two teachers on the bus tore it into pieces and doused them with water. The children held the damp pieces of cloth to their mouths and breathed through them.

He had been on the job, driving the bus for Ponderosa Elementary School in the northern California city of Paradise, only for a few months. Now, McKay was ferrying the 22 stranded children to safety as the Camp Fire scorched everything in its path. It would take five hours for them to reach safety.

The fire had broken out early November 8, forcing many to evacuate Butte County.

McKay, 41, grew concerned early. He had seen wildfires before, he said.

"But the fact that it was coming down in 1,000 places, it was unheard of," McKay told CNN in an interview Sunday in a park in Chico, a city southwest of Paradise.

His son, mom and girlfriend had already evacuated to a hotel in Chico that morning.

"That freed me up to focus completely on this terrifying situation," McKay said.

Family members of other students had already picked up their children.

But nearly two dozen students were stranded because their family members hadn't made it to the school. McKay discussed evacuating the students with Ponderosa's principal.

'It felt like Armageddon'

Abbie Davis, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher at Ponderosa, and Mary Ludwig, 50, who teaches second grade, evacuated with McKay and the students.

Ludwig recalled the "the sky was really menacing."

"It was very scary. It felt like Armageddon," she said Sunday.

"It just kind of looked like we'd be headed into Mordor," McKay recalled, referring to the realm of the evil lord Sauron in "The Lord the Rings" books and films.

As McKay drove away from the school on roads thick with smoke, the bus became stuck in the gridlock of vehicles trying to leave Paradise. Should they abandon the bus, they wondered?

Davis and Ludwig walked the bus aisle comforting students.

As the smoke intensified, young lungs filled up. One student complained of being tired. Davis saw other kids dozing off.

The adults had to improvise. There was only one water bottle on the bus. McKay took off his shirt. They tore it up and doused the strips of cloth with water, so the students could use them to breathe properly, they recalled.

"That seemed to help," McKay said.

During the journey, McKay and the teachers also created their own emergency plan: Pair little kids with the big kids. Take roll. Get phone numbers. Review how to operate the emergency exits, first aid kit and the fire extinguisher.

'Paradise is lost'

Fourth-grader Charlotte Merz, 10, said she tried to stay calm and recalled "going to my happy place" on the journey.

The smoke made it hard to see. "It was so crazy, and there were fires left and right everywhere you looked," she said.

McKay said: "That's when we realized -- it's a silly statement, but Paradise is lost."

At one point, a car sideswiped them, McKay recalled. It sounded like someone was punching the bus, Davis said. They saw other traffic collisions.

Along the way, they picked up a passenger. She was a preschool teacher from an elementary school in the nearby city of Biggs whose car had broken down.

Davis said she thought she was going to die several times along the journey. At one point, they prayed, Ludwig said.

Hours later, parents and children were reunited. McKay said Davis' husband hugged him so hard, he "damned near lifted me off the ground."

The Camp Fire is now the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, killing 76 people and leaving more than 1,200 people still unaccounted for. The blaze had seared more than 149,000 acres as of Sunday morning, and was 60% contained.

Recounting their escape Sunday, McKay was modest. Safety is an important part of a bus driver's role, he said, and he must have paid attention to those classes.

But Davis and Ludwig said McKay was a true hero.

"We had the bus driver from heaven," Ludwig said.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 517138

Reported Deaths: 10306
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison35086559
DeSoto33512432
Hinds32826644
Jackson24938392
Rankin22621405
Lee16564245
Madison14986283
Jones14195248
Forrest13865260
Lauderdale12343323
Lowndes11401193
Lamar10715140
Pearl River9762244
Lafayette8898143
Hancock7854132
Washington7562169
Oktibbeha7246138
Monroe7106179
Pontotoc7071110
Warren6915179
Panola6815136
Neshoba6762210
Marshall6751142
Bolivar6484151
Union647099
Alcorn5969108
Pike5953157
Lincoln5550136
George511380
Prentiss511086
Tippah498483
Itawamba4916107
Scott479599
Tate4790118
Adams4789125
Leflore4765144
Copiah458995
Simpson4587117
Yazoo458692
Wayne444372
Covington435895
Sunflower4338106
Marion4313112
Coahoma4263111
Leake414491
Newton396482
Tishomingo390294
Grenada3799109
Stone366466
Attala342290
Jasper341667
Chickasaw320867
Winston319092
Clay314378
Clarke302095
Calhoun289550
Holmes273789
Smith271452
Yalobusha246547
Tallahatchie233153
Greene225549
Walthall222266
Lawrence221142
Perry214656
Amite210657
Webster207248
Noxubee188943
Montgomery182857
Carroll176341
Jefferson Davis175043
Tunica164139
Benton153539
Kemper145641
Choctaw138027
Claiborne134939
Humphreys132639
Franklin127130
Quitman107928
Wilkinson106539
Jefferson97334
Sharkey65321
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 849409

Reported Deaths: 16199
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1165042004
Mobile744951384
Madison53605739
Shelby38474373
Baldwin38236590
Tuscaloosa36225644
Montgomery34599784
Lee25712264
Calhoun22652520
Morgan22569411
Etowah20084521
Marshall18878318
Houston17806426
St. Clair16987359
Limestone16220222
Cullman16183306
Elmore15967295
Lauderdale15126308
Talladega14275302
DeKalb13099271
Walker12202380
Blount10803193
Autauga10566157
Jackson10237196
Coffee9447192
Colbert9396210
Dale9052192
Tallapoosa7291202
Russell711965
Chilton7101171
Covington6985197
Escambia6972146
Franklin6379108
Chambers5815142
Marion5451132
Dallas5307210
Pike5135109
Clarke485986
Lawrence4857130
Winston4804111
Geneva4658137
Bibb436795
Barbour370880
Butler3446101
Marengo342593
Monroe338666
Randolph338567
Pickens335590
Fayette332785
Henry321566
Cherokee321264
Hale320289
Crenshaw262278
Washington256952
Cleburne255460
Lamar253755
Clay253169
Macon246667
Conecuh193962
Coosa186248
Lowndes178468
Wilcox178338
Bullock152845
Perry141940
Sumter139841
Greene130845
Choctaw94928
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Cloudy
44° wxIcon
Hi: 58° Lo: 35°
Feels Like: 41°
Columbus
Cloudy
42° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 39°
Feels Like: 42°
Oxford
Mostly Cloudy
39° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 33°
Feels Like: 36°
Starkville
Mostly Cloudy
42° wxIcon
Hi: 59° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 42°
Temperatures return closer to normal for Wednesday with the shower staying south of us for the middle of the week, but rain chances start returning Thursday and could include thunderstorms, some possibly strong by Friday late in the day.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather