Bus driver, student recall escape from fire

Kevin McKay is being hailed a "bus driver from heaven" after he drove a school bus filled with children along gridlocked and dark roads as pockets of fire burned all around.

Posted: Nov 19, 2018 8:14 PM
Updated: Nov 19, 2018 8:33 PM

Kevin McKay drove the school bus along gridlocked, dark roads as pockets of fire burned all around. Nearly two dozen elementary school children were on board with him.

Smoke began to fill the bus, so McKay took off a shirt. He and two teachers on the bus tore it into pieces and doused them with water. The children held the damp pieces of cloth to their mouths and breathed through them.

He had been on the job, driving the bus for Ponderosa Elementary School in the northern California city of Paradise, only for a few months. Now, McKay was ferrying the 22 stranded children to safety as the Camp Fire scorched everything in its path. It would take five hours for them to reach safety.

The fire had broken out early November 8, forcing many to evacuate Butte County.

McKay, 41, grew concerned early. He had seen wildfires before, he said.

"But the fact that it was coming down in 1,000 places, it was unheard of," McKay told CNN in an interview Sunday in a park in Chico, a city southwest of Paradise.

His son, mom and girlfriend had already evacuated to a hotel in Chico that morning.

"That freed me up to focus completely on this terrifying situation," McKay said.

Family members of other students had already picked up their children.

But nearly two dozen students were stranded because their family members hadn't made it to the school. McKay discussed evacuating the students with Ponderosa's principal.

'It felt like Armageddon'

Abbie Davis, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher at Ponderosa, and Mary Ludwig, 50, who teaches second grade, evacuated with McKay and the students.

Ludwig recalled the "the sky was really menacing."

"It was very scary. It felt like Armageddon," she said Sunday.

"It just kind of looked like we'd be headed into Mordor," McKay recalled, referring to the realm of the evil lord Sauron in "The Lord the Rings" books and films.

As McKay drove away from the school on roads thick with smoke, the bus became stuck in the gridlock of vehicles trying to leave Paradise. Should they abandon the bus, they wondered?

Davis and Ludwig walked the bus aisle comforting students.

As the smoke intensified, young lungs filled up. One student complained of being tired. Davis saw other kids dozing off.

The adults had to improvise. There was only one water bottle on the bus. McKay took off his shirt. They tore it up and doused the strips of cloth with water, so the students could use them to breathe properly, they recalled.

"That seemed to help," McKay said.

During the journey, McKay and the teachers also created their own emergency plan: Pair little kids with the big kids. Take roll. Get phone numbers. Review how to operate the emergency exits, first aid kit and the fire extinguisher.

'Paradise is lost'

Fourth-grader Charlotte Merz, 10, said she tried to stay calm and recalled "going to my happy place" on the journey.

The smoke made it hard to see. "It was so crazy, and there were fires left and right everywhere you looked," she said.

McKay said: "That's when we realized -- it's a silly statement, but Paradise is lost."

At one point, a car sideswiped them, McKay recalled. It sounded like someone was punching the bus, Davis said. They saw other traffic collisions.

Along the way, they picked up a passenger. She was a preschool teacher from an elementary school in the nearby city of Biggs whose car had broken down.

Davis said she thought she was going to die several times along the journey. At one point, they prayed, Ludwig said.

Hours later, parents and children were reunited. McKay said Davis' husband hugged him so hard, he "damned near lifted me off the ground."

The Camp Fire is now the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, killing 76 people and leaving more than 1,200 people still unaccounted for. The blaze had seared more than 149,000 acres as of Sunday morning, and was 60% contained.

Recounting their escape Sunday, McKay was modest. Safety is an important part of a bus driver's role, he said, and he must have paid attention to those classes.

But Davis and Ludwig said McKay was a true hero.

"We had the bus driver from heaven," Ludwig said.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 306538

Reported Deaths: 5435
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion41953849
Lake26872453
Allen17621295
Elkhart16905219
St. Joseph16524223
Hamilton12696167
Vanderburgh9552115
Tippecanoe844927
Porter813785
Johnson6231165
Vigo597979
Hendricks5944156
Monroe530349
Clark504077
Madison4858121
Delaware4820103
LaPorte457194
Kosciusko455739
Howard334975
Warrick319572
Floyd311477
Bartholomew308462
Wayne301367
Cass295831
Marshall293744
Grant262949
Noble249846
Hancock246551
Boone240254
Henry240237
Dubois234631
Dearborn215730
Jackson212633
Morgan204443
Gibson181725
Knox181419
Shelby178254
Clinton177821
Lawrence174047
DeKalb172829
Adams166422
Wabash158020
Miami157814
Daviess154643
Fayette147733
Steuben143513
Jasper142111
Harrison141824
LaGrange140129
Montgomery139027
Whitley133412
Ripley128114
Decatur124643
Huntington123510
Putnam123027
Randolph120719
Wells120428
White120321
Clay119822
Posey119616
Jefferson116216
Scott103219
Greene101353
Jay96413
Starke90621
Sullivan88916
Fulton83518
Jennings83214
Spencer8198
Perry81521
Fountain7738
Washington7417
Franklin68626
Carroll67913
Orange66628
Vermillion5993
Owen5987
Parke5606
Newton55312
Tipton55226
Rush5317
Blackford51912
Pike50318
Pulaski37710
Martin3515
Benton3362
Brown3353
Crawford2881
Union2671
Switzerland2555
Warren2382
Ohio2307
Unassigned0266

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 371840

Reported Deaths: 6100
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin50231667
Cuyahoga36047741
Hamilton29931372
Montgomery20065228
Butler14769146
Lucas14317414
Summit13388316
Stark8792197
Warren819175
Mahoning7276299
Lake682666
Lorain643499
Clermont577248
Delaware556436
Licking549276
Fairfield538464
Trumbull5305147
Greene522364
Clark511464
Allen465485
Marion465251
Wood4491107
Medina447756
Miami425867
Pickaway399348
Columbiana347297
Portage344872
Tuscarawas328658
Wayne318793
Richland316638
Mercer289945
Hancock241337
Ross240759
Muskingum240210
Auglaize231031
Putnam224749
Erie224266
Darke223559
Ashtabula223253
Geauga203351
Scioto195915
Union19118
Shelby190615
Lawrence189438
Athens18864
Seneca180018
Belmont164929
Madison158918
Sandusky154229
Preble152621
Huron152318
Defiance139522
Holmes139139
Logan127816
Knox126318
Fulton124525
Washington121927
Crawford121516
Ottawa121130
Clinton106714
Williams10579
Ashland105222
Highland101317
Jefferson10124
Henry100023
Brown9925
Champaign9475
Jackson93112
Hardin91019
Fayette90317
Van Wert8976
Morrow8882
Guernsey83914
Coshocton82613
Perry78712
Adams78313
Pike7451
Gallia73513
Wyandot71216
Paulding64611
Hocking62616
Noble60223
Carroll45710
Meigs39012
Monroe31821
Morgan2575
Vinton2195
Harrison2023
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 40°
Angola
46° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 35°
Feels Like: 41°
Huntington
Overcast
46° wxIcon
Hi: 46° Lo: 35°
Feels Like: 41°
Decatur
Overcast
48° wxIcon
Hi: 47° Lo: 37°
Feels Like: 43°
Van Wert
Overcast
48° wxIcon
Hi: 48° Lo: 38°
Feels Like: 43°
Cloudy Thanksgiving
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events