Manufacturer now aiding investigation into CMS bus fires

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (CMS) has brought in a third party to help investigate why Bus 188 caught fire. The bus manufacturer, Thomas Built, is now helping in the investigation.

While the district continues its investigation, WBTV is taking claims of bus tampering to the district. An anonymous person close to the transportation department says one week a bus had 260,000 miles on it. The next week it had just a couple of hundred.

The 30-day inspection report of Bus 188, which is 16 years old, shows two different numbers for mileage. In one place it states the bus had 5,171 miles - in another part it shows 303,594 miles.

CMS says the 303,594 number is correct. Sources say the odometer was possibly replaced in the bus.

WBTV reached out again on Friday about the issue and received a statement from CMS.

"The 303K mileage is the correct mileage for the bus itself. Bus #188 had the odometer changed in May 2017 but we still maintain the accurate mileage on the engine. The 5171 is the mileage on the new odometer," the statement read.

Bus 188 is eligible to be replaced, as buses approaching 20 years old with more than 250,000 miles and buses less than 15 years old with more than 300,000 miles fit the criteria. CMS says it needs to hold on to its spare buses.

"We are allowed to keep them in our spare pool to be used," CMS Chief Operating Officer Carol Stamper said. "These buses are not assigned to a daily active route."

Jeff York is an experienced mechanic at Mecklenburg County Fleet Management. He doesn't work on CMS buses but says the engines in the buses in question are reliable.

"Haven't really seen any issue with fire with those motors," York said. "Those buses have been around for a while - why all of a sudden they are doing it?"

Another concern on the inspection report is the mention of an oily engine. Sources say an oily engine means it should have been cleaned and that should have been documented in the inspection report. It wasn't. An oily engine could cause a fire if faulty wires went unchecked.

The state issued a memo to school district transportation directors in September 2016 reminding them of the need for bus mechanics to thoroughly check for exposed wiring on school buses.

That same directive was issued again to CMS mechanics last month, the district said on Thursday, after the first of two school buses caught on fire.

"No conditions were out of order on that bus," Stamper said. "We were checking for very specific things. The wiring that was leading into the engine compartment and the starter and all of that was in order on that bus."

York says checking the wires can be a challenge.

"If you are not looking for it, it would be impossible to find it," York said. "I am really going to take up for the mechanics here."

CMS is checking on the allegations of tampering with old buses and changing odometers. There is no word how long the investigation will take.

Both school buses that have recently caught fire in Mecklenburg County are an FS-65 model bus with a CAT 3126 engine.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction says that model bus with that type of engine is used by nearly every district across the state. There are roughly 2,800 in the state's active bus fleet, not counting school activity buses.

Mecklenburg County has the most of that kind of bus, with 233. Catawba County has 61 of the bus and Union County has 54.


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