District pulls school buses off road after safety concerns prompted by bus fire

Superintendent warns others as N.C. education leaders refuse to act
Published: Aug. 17, 2021 at 10:18 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 17, 2021 at 11:13 AM EDT
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STATESVILLE, N.C. (WBTV) – As the Iredell-Statesville School System prepares for students to go back to school, its leaders are making a last-minute scramble to find a few extra buses.

Recently, at the suggestion of its lead mechanics, ISS Superintendent Dr. Jeff James decided to pull three buses off the road. Now he has to find three replacements.

The buses are made by International and have a Maxx7 engine. That’s the same engine on the same type of bus as one that caught fire in May.

“This particular bus model has had some issues, not just here but elsewhere,” James said. “So that’s always our concern when that happens more than once.”

The International brand is owned by the Chicago-based company Navistar. The company uses a line of engines branded as MaxxForce, which is used in school buses, delivery vans and tractor trailers.

In North Carolina, there are more than 1,300 school buses with MaxxForce engines assigned to public school districts across the state. Of those, 414 buses have the Maxx7 engine. Another 887 buses have a MaxxDT engine.

The MaxxForce engines circulate exhaust through the engine in an effort to burn off excess emissions.

It’s a process that’s come under fire in at least a half-dozen lawsuits, including one class action suit brought by tractor trailer owners that alleged the exhaust system caused the engine to malfunction. Navistar settled that lawsuit for $135 million in a settlement that got final court approval in early 2020.

Beyond extra maintenance, officials at Iredell-Statesville Schools believe the mechanical problems are likely what led to the fire in May.

Ricky Adams, who oversees the bus garage, pointed to fuel saturation in the oil as evidence of the problem.

Adams said the bus that caught fire had its oil changed one day before the fire. The mechanic that changed the oil took an oil sample and found 30% dilution.

Mechanics took an oil sample after the fire, a little more than 200 miles after the oil had been changed, and found 37% dilution.

“There’s, like, seven quarts of fuel in the engine oil,” Adams explained, noting that number should be zero.

Adams recommended the district not use its other Maxx7 buses until they can pinpoint the problem for sure.

“Our mechanics are leery of them, scared of them,” he said. “Frankly, I’m a little bit scared of them myself right now, simply because we don’t know exactly what happened with this one.”

Document: Bus data breakdown by county

According to Adams, Navistar has not come to inspect the bus; they’ve only sent a photographer to take pictures.

Instead, the burned bus sits covered in the back of the bus lot.

“You can go look, it’s charred inside, it’s not a pretty sight,” James, the superintendent, said.

“Looking at it actually gives you cold chills because some child could have died on that bus; it’s not a time to start trying to protect yourself, it’s a time to say what’s wrong, let’s fix the problem.”

But the engine has never faced a recall.

And state education leaders at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction said the agency had no responsibility to warn other districts of the potential danger, even though a spokeswoman for the agency said staff was tracking the problem.

“DPI does not have daily oversight in these situations but refers to the experience and expertise of those on the ground in the districts as school buses are owned, maintained, and operated by the school districts,” spokeswoman Mary Lee Gibson said.

Gibson did not respond to a follow-up question about why the agency, which owns the school buses, did not think it had any role to play in alerting other school districts to a possible fire danger.

Similarly, a spokesman for Navistar acknowledged a request for comment for this story but never sent a statement or agreed to answer questions.

In the meantime, James and Adams with Iredell-Statesville Schools will be figuring out how to run their bus routes without using the International buses with Maxx7 engines assigned to their district.

“For the safety of our kids, we’re going to park those buses and now it’s a hardship on us,” James said.

“This is serious. Somebody needs to get serious about it from all points. You know, we’re trying to, I guess, ring the bell and say there’s an issue.”

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