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Witnesses Haunted by Hurricane Rita Bus Fire

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

A year ago, Hurricane Rita was moving toward Texas. More than a million people fled Houston. There is one iconic image from that evacuation: a burning bus that carried nursing home patients away from the hurricane. Twenty-three people died in that bus fire. Bill Zeeble of member station KERA in Dallas looks back on that tragedy.

BILL ZEEBLE: The bus burned here on I-45 North, just out of Dallas.

Mr. FRED WIT (Salvage Business Owner): I was out here - right here. And I looked over there and I saw the fire burning, so I sit over there and was watching it.

ZEEBLE: Fred Wit(ph) 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.

Mr. WIT: Two or three people were out already, and this one ol' guy was trying to get out there, and he couldn't walk. Something wrong with his foot. So I got a hold of his hand and got him over to the side of the road here.

ZEEBLE: Then, says the 75-year-old Good Samaritan, emergency workers asked him to move. He turned his back for an instant. The, he says, boom, there was an explosion.

Mr. WIT: And I turned and looked, and it blew up again. Three times. And one piece came across over here to the fence. A piece of plastic off the bus. And I felt that thing. When I was looking I felt that (clapping sound) hit my back.

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

Lieutenant MARQUAND SHEPARD (Firefighter, Hutchins Fire Department): We were the first engine on the scene.

ZEEBLE: Lieutenant Marquand Shepard is with the nearby Hutchins Fire Department. He received the call a little after 5:00 a.m. Even then, he says, there were reports that a couple of dozen people might be trapped onboard. So he and colleague Geneva Schneider(ph) knew it was bad well before arriving.

Lieutenant SHEPARD: Well, actually you could see the flames from about two or three miles away.

Ms. GENEVA SCHNEIDER (Firefighter, Hutchins Fire Department): As we came over the hill you could see it. It was this huge bonfire. Huge.

Lieutenant SHEPARD: So from a mile away we could tell it was a bus and it was full (unintelligible) so there was no chance - if anybody was on the bus you can just say that's it.

ZEEBLE: They put this down as a bad call. No smiling faces, no happy family members - even though the 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.

Mr. PAUL WOOD (Hutchins Fire Department): When you've always heard in the news about being burned beyond recognition - yes, and this is a case where you had multiple burns beyond recognitions. There were some, there were very hard to identify as even being human.

ZEEBLE: All here agree this is the worst disaster any of them have ever worked. But they are not the types to place blame, instead expressing confidence in those whose job it is to get answers so this won't happen again.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigation isn't finished yet. But the Hutchins' firefighters all agree on this - don't ever evacuate disabled people on a bus.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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