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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: 726600

Reported Deaths: 13379
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion992781737
Lake53359964
Allen40387675
St. Joseph35449550
Hamilton35440408
Elkhart28376439
Tippecanoe22336217
Vanderburgh22271396
Porter18637306
Johnson17876377
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Clark12919191
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Vigo12426245
Monroe11845169
LaPorte11773210
Delaware10615185
Howard9859215
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Hancock8239140
Bartholomew8042155
Warrick7766155
Floyd7645177
Grant7019174
Wayne7018199
Boone6669101
Morgan6547139
Dubois6148117
Marshall6000111
Dearborn578577
Cass5780105
Henry5681102
Noble558283
Jackson500472
Shelby489496
Lawrence4492120
Gibson434391
Harrison434271
Clinton426853
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Montgomery423388
Whitley394439
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Newton107034
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Benton98414
Martin87815
Warren81415
Switzerland7848
Union70710
Ohio56211
Unassigned0413

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1080121

Reported Deaths: 19344
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1254981392
Cuyahoga1115202107
Hamilton798171200
Montgomery512711012
Summit46997933
Lucas41982782
Butler38273580
Stark32190907
Lorain24910480
Warren24249297
Mahoning21474586
Lake20586368
Clermont19727238
Delaware18496131
Licking16396210
Fairfield16144199
Trumbull15996466
Medina15233262
Greene15027244
Clark13960297
Wood13056188
Portage12806201
Allen11609231
Richland11308198
Miami10659215
Muskingum8795132
Wayne8777210
Columbiana8756229
Pickaway8547121
Marion8511135
Tuscarawas8467243
Erie7859154
Hancock6900126
Ross6835152
Ashtabula6777169
Geauga6665148
Scioto6398101
Belmont5856167
Union570047
Lawrence5542102
Jefferson5511151
Huron5422119
Darke5344122
Sandusky5330120
Seneca5268121
Athens518258
Washington5148109
Auglaize488484
Mercer480185
Shelby468593
Knox4479110
Madison435461
Putnam4268100
Ashland421289
Fulton420969
Defiance418997
Crawford3965106
Brown392957
Logan381176
Preble379098
Clinton370561
Ottawa366279
Highland353861
Williams338075
Champaign330458
Guernsey315453
Jackson312051
Perry294550
Morrow283839
Fayette281449
Hardin270364
Henry268166
Coshocton264258
Holmes2590101
Van Wert242863
Pike237433
Adams237052
Gallia235048
Wyandot230654
Hocking215162
Carroll191247
Paulding172440
Meigs144639
Noble133337
Monroe131942
Morgan108323
Harrison107537
Vinton82415
Unassigned02
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We'll start Friday off dry, but the chance of rain returns. Scattered showers will be possible by late morning until the evening.
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