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: 159036

Reported Deaths: 3879
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto10563104
Hinds10414204
Harrison7397113
Jackson6655128
Rankin6057107
Lee540396
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Forrest394786
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Tate180451
Union172926
Copiah170840
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Clarke94853
Jasper87023
Stone82015
Calhoun79513
Walthall79330
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Carroll75515
Lawrence74614
Smith74216
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Greene62422
Jefferson Davis59617
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Amite57615
Humphreys55219
Quitman5107
Benton50418
Kemper48018
Webster47714
Wilkinson40722
Jefferson38312
Choctaw3637
Franklin3635
Sharkey32917
Issaquena1214
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 256828

Reported Deaths: 3711
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson34214511
Mobile20299366
Madison13925150
Tuscaloosa13591156
Montgomery12659238
Shelby1095877
Baldwin9163137
Lee792566
Morgan710851
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Talladega374457
Jackson350723
Colbert336443
Blount310043
Autauga287342
Franklin259734
Coffee254115
Dale242054
Dallas232932
Chilton230841
Russell22813
Covington227934
Escambia206131
Tallapoosa189191
Chambers185950
Pike162214
Clarke161819
Marion146136
Winston141924
Lawrence135336
Pickens127720
Geneva12638
Marengo125224
Bibb123938
Barbour120629
Butler118842
Randolph105922
Cherokee105524
Hale99732
Fayette96316
Clay93525
Washington93319
Henry8946
Monroe83811
Lowndes82129
Cleburne79914
Macon76522
Crenshaw72930
Conecuh72414
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Bullock70919
Perry6927
Wilcox64918
Sumter58922
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