School bus fire leads to statewide inspections

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February 25, 2012 9:34 AM

SUZANNE ULBRICH - DAILY NEWS STAFF
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s School Transportation Services announced Wednesday that it is calling for all school system transportation departments to perform special inspections to try to prevent a recurrence of a Feb. 8 school bus fire in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district.

Preliminary reviews and inspections of the bus that caught on fire pointed to an intake heater wire rubbing against the metal heater shutoff valve to the point that the wire covering was worn through. That exposed wiring possibly led to a short that caused the subsequent fire, according to the NCDPI release.

NCDPI School Transportation Services Section Chief Derek Graham said that it appears probable that the buses with this situation are most likely from bus shipments received between the summer of 1998 through 1999 from Thomas Built Buses.

Onslow County Schools started inspecting buses last week, said Mike Henderson, the school district’s director of transportation.

He said the school district has 29 yellow school buses plus nine activity buses that are 1998 and 1999 models mandated for the special inspection.

“And we are also checking 2000 and 2001 models, just for peace of mind,” he said.

He estimated Thursday that half the inspections were done and said all of them should be completed by Monday.

Henderson said the state requires all mechanics who work on school buses to be certified inspectors. The buses are already inspected every 30 days as mandated by NCDPI School Transportation Services.

“They look at wires and anything that may be rubbing; they check for breaks, oil leaks … anything out of the ordinary,” Henderson said. “Anything that pops up like this (we will) constantly keep and eye on it.”

So far the inspections have revealed no issues with the wiring, he said.

Carteret County School District only had two buses in need of the directed inspection, said Lloyd Willis, the district’s director of transportation.

“We did our inspection of those last week when we got the email from DPI and what to look for,” he said. “One of the two buses was fine; the other had some potential to be a problem down the line; there were beginning signs of chafing.

“We moved the wiring for now to keep them away.”

Willis said he expects Thomas Built Buses will come out with a plan on how they want the situation corrected permanently.

There were six students aboard the bus that was damaged in the Feb. 8 fire. According to AP reports, the bus driver was taking the students home when she noticed a burning smell, stopped the bus and evacuated the students in advance of what became a quickly spreading fire. No one was injured. Initial reports indicated that the fire started in the switch panel to the left of the driver, however further inspection pointed to worn wire coverings.