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A Witness And Rescuers Recall The Rita Bus Fire

By Bill Zeeble, KERA reporter

Wilmer, TX – Bill Zeeble: The bus burned here a year ago, on 1-45 going north, just out of Dallas.

Fred Witte, witness: I was right here, and looked over here & saw the fire burning, so I stood over there and was watching it.

Zeeble: Fred Witte owns a salvage business near where the Global Limo coach pulled over. It was still dark, but he rises early. He went to the disabled bus.

Witte: Two or three people were out already. This one old guy was trying to get out, couldn't walk, something wrong with his foot, so I got hold of his hand and got him over the side of the road here.

Zeeble: Then, says the 75 year-old good-Samaritan, emergency workers asked him to move away. He turned his back for an instant. Then he says BOOM, there was an explosion.

Witte: And I turned and looked and it blew up again. Three times. And I felt that thing, I thought that it (HE CLAPS!) hit my back!

Zeeble: Investigators think the explosions were caused by incinerating, medical oxygen tanks needed by passengers. Once they blew, all rescue efforts stopped.

Lt. Marquand Shepard: We were the first engine on scene.

Zeeble: Lt. Marquand Shepard is with the nearby Hutchins Fire Department. He received the call a little after 5 a.m., Even then he says there were reports that a couple dozen people might be trapped onboard. So he and colleague Geneva Snider knew it was bad well before arriving.

Shepard: Actually you could see the flames from about 2-3 miles away.
Snider: We came over the hill, it was a huge bonfire. Huge.
Shepard: So from a mile away we could tell it was a bus, and it was fully involved. No chance. If anyone was on the bus you could just say that's it.

Zeeble: They put this down as a bad call. No smiling faces, no happy family members, even though rescuers helped 21 people escape. But, they say, it was even harder for a colleague whose duty involved body recovery. Hutchins firefighter Paul Wood had that job.

Paul Wood, Hutchins Fire Fighter: When you always heard in the news about being burned beyond recognition? Yes. And this is a case where you had multiple burned-beyond- recognitions. There were some that were very hard to identify as even being human.

Zeeble: Zeeble: All here agree this is the worst disaster they've ever worked. They're also confident in those whose job it is to get answers, so that this won't happen again. To that end, the National Transportation Safety Board held two days of hearings in Washington last month. They heard from witnesses and law enforcement officials, bus, safety, fire and accident investigators, and others. Officials asked whether different procedures are needed for evacuations, and how a bus company that had violated safety rules was allowed to operate. The investigation's not finished. But the Hutchins firefighters, who did not testify, all agree on this - don't ever evacuate disabled people on a big bus. Move them, they suggest, by ambulance, or a few at a time, in small handi-vans. For KERA 90.1. I'm Bill Zeeble.
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