CMS: 3,000+ school buses on NC roads are same model as one that caught fire

(Ron Lee | WBTV)
(Ron Lee | WBTV)
(Ron Lee | WBTV)
(Ron Lee | WBTV)

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Leaders with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools say there are more than 3,000 school buses on North Carolina roads which are the same model as two school buses that have caught fire recently in Charlotte.

According to CMS, there were not any students on board Bus 188 at the time the bus caught fire Tuesday afternoon in southwest Charlotte. The bus caught fire near Nations Ford Road and Downs Road.

A witness told WBTV that the driver was still on the bus and was not injured during the fire but shaken. The driver reported she smelled smoke and stopped the bus immediately. She exited before the bus ignited, according to reports.

During a press conference Wednesday, officials said there are thousands of buses across the state which are the same make and model of the bus that caught fire Tuesday. They also said they have no plans to pull buses from that model off the road.

"Until we know the cause of the fire, it would be premature to pull these buses off the road," CMS Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper said.

Officials said the a bus that caught fire in Charlotte last month was the same make and model as Tuesday's bus fire. They have invited officials from the state and crews from the bus manufacturer ,Thomas Built Buses, to look at the bus from Tuesday and they are expected to inspect the bus Wednesday.

"Nobody's going to walk away from this not taking a very thorough look, and taking some conclusion to the best of our abilities," Stamper said.

CMS Police will also inspect the bus to see if there was any tampering with the bus ahead of the fire.

"We are unequivocally committed to doing everything possible to protect the safety and well-being of students, whether they be in the classroom, on the athletic field, in any CMS facility, involved in any CMS activity or on a CMS school bus," said Tracy Russ, chief communications officer.

During the press conference Wednesday, CMS unveiled their five-step process it uses to "ensure student and staff safety."

1. Investigation -- CMS has asked the bus manufacturer, senior inspectors from the N.C. Department of Instruction Transportation Division and fire inspectors from the City of Charlotte to conduct an independent investigation into the cause of this fire and to advise us of any possible widespread safety concerns.
2. Immediate review -- Maintenance procedures, practices and policies will be reviewed to protect the safety of our passengers and staff.
3. We will reinspect all buses of this type as areas of concern from this investigation are identified and we will act as needed.
4. Criminal investigation -- CMSPD and CMPD are investigating, including a review of surveillance footage of the bus lot.
5. Safety drills -- All drivers and staff will participate in bus emergency-exit procedure drills.

"We want to assure families that CMS buses are safe and we are doing everything in our power to keep them safe," Stamper said.

CMS is providing parents with the make and model of their children's bus to see if it is one on the ones in question.  The bus in question is Freightliner 3126. The district is planning to have that information on its website sometime Thursday. CMS says about 18 percent of its fleet is a Freightliner 3126.

Firefighters said the blaze "seems to have originated in the engine compartment and spread into the driver's area and passenger compartment."

CMS officials say they will release the findings of the current investigation into the bus fire on board bus #188 as soon as they are available.

Bus #188 was last inspected on October 16. In the comment section it was written the engine was oily. The bus passed the inspection.

There are similarities to the school bus incident on Tuesday and what happened on Oct. 19 when Bus 364 from South Mecklenburg High School caught fire on Dunlavin Way. Students were on board of Bus 364 when the fire started. Sources tell WBTV Bus 188 had the same engine as Bus 364. State officials say initial reports show it is unlikely the two buses had the same problem.

A statement released on Nov. 2 about the fire on Bus 364 states that school buses with similar engine types were to be inspected.

A top priority of the district is to ensure the safety of students and staff on board any CMS bus. As a proactive measure, CMS is inspecting 250 school buses, activity buses and spare buses with similar engine types.  These inspections are closely examining the wiring area of those buses, to determine if there is any indication of a failure. The inspection of these buses is ongoing and so far, CMS transportation staff have not found any areas of concern.

RELATED: School bus catches fire with students on board

Sources say the bus involved in the latest incident should have been checked before hitting the road.

Soon after the fire happened, an employee of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reached out to WBTV regarding the incident, speaking under anonymity out of fear of retaliation from the district.

The employee works in the CMS transportation department and has driven buses for the district in past years. The employee said he is now concerned about the safety of the school buses.

"When I heard that today my first thought is 'OK are the kids safe? Is the driver safe.' Thank goodness there were no kids on the bus," the employee said.

The transportation worker said he questions the upkeep of the buses and thinks some of them may not be getting the proper maintenance work they need. He worries that this may be the reason some buses are catching fire.

"Parents trust us to get their kids to and from school in a safe way so to see this on TV, it makes you wonder 'how safe are my children?'" the CMS employee said.

Sixteen students had to be evacuated from a CMS bus in January as it drove its afternoon route through east Charlotte. An alerted bus driver managed to get students off the bus as flames began shooting out from under the hood.

WBTV 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.

Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 19, 2017, firefighters responded to a call to douse water on the flames shooting out from under the bus.

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