CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Sixteen students had to be evacuated from a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bus in January as it drove its afternoon route through east Charlotte.
An alert bus driver managed to get students off the bus as flames began shooting out from under the hood.
Now, a WBTV investigation has uncovered records showing the 12-year-old bus had a history of coolant leaks that caused the engine to start smoking just two weeks before the bus caught fire.
Maintenance logs provided by CMS in response to a public records request from WBTV show mechanics were called out to address the bus smoking not once but twice on January 6, 2017.
The first call description is listed as "road call overheat." The second work order description for the bus says "road service call smoking."
It is unclear what time of day the two service calls were made but the documents show the incidents happened in the span of the bus driving 70 additional miles.
PREVIOUS ARTICLE: CMS school bus catches fire, 16 students on board OK
Less than two weeks later, on January 19, 2017, firefighters responded to a call to douse water on the flames shooting out from under the bus.
But Janet Thomas, CMS' Transportation Director, said the bus's previous coolant leaks had nothing to do with the fire weeks later.
"The consensus is that it was caused by an electrical wire and not something that would have presented itself prior to (the fire)," Thomas explained. "There was no evidence that there was anything wrong prior to the event."
Thomas said she does not believe the persistent coolant leaks had anything to do with the January fire.
"The header hose would have caused a different type of smoke than, obviously, what occurred on the day of the fire," she said.
Our questions about the January bus fire come months after a WBTV investigation found problems with delayed maintenance on CMS buses.
PREVIOUS ARTICLE: State inspectors find dangerous defects on CMS buses
The delays, a whistleblower said at the time, were caused by a shortage of bus mechanics. As a result, a state inspector found an increased number of CMS buses with serious maintenance problems—including cracked frames and worn brakes—that required the buses to be pulled off the road.
Thomas, the school transportation director, said the mechanic shortage continues.
"It creates a challenge for the volume of work for the staff we have," she said, before adding that the school systems' mechanics are committed to keeping all school buses in safe working order.