On May 7 last year, a packed school bus was winding its way to three schools in Duncan when two students in the back noticed something strange:
Smoke was billowing out of the engine.
They alerted driver Teressa Stroble, who stopped the bus and ushered the 56 children to safety.
Soon the vehicle was consumed in flames.
Another school bus had caught on fire in South Carolina.
“The bus fire in Duncan really was a wake-up call for our district and really made us reexamine what our priorities are,” said Derek Lewis, a Greenville County Schools trustee who has worked extensively on school bus issues.
School bus fires are rare, but there have been dozens of such incidents involving South Carolina’s aging bus fleet over the past 20 years.
Many of the fires occurred on old school buses that, by state law, should not have been transporting students, according to South Carolina lawmakers..
In Greenville County in November, a bus carrying 29 Southside High School students caught on fire. The driver pulled over after noticing smoke and small flames from the bus’ rear engine.
And just last week, a bus heading to pick up dozens of students at Robert Anderson Middle School in Anderson County erupted in flames.
More: 23-year-old school bus catches fire in Anderson just minutes after students dropped off
Since 1995, South Carolina school buses have caught fire or seriously overheated 108 times, according to the state Department of Education.
Even when a fire has completely destroyed a bus, as in Duncan in Spartanburg County, there have been no student deaths or serious injuries in the past 22 years, according to state Education officials.
The state Education Department has sought to replace 1995/96 school buses that have experienced a high number of so-called “thermal events” — catching fire or seriously overheating. The age of buses has been a factor, state education leaders say. A burned school bus is shown last May in Spartanburg. Authorities say more than 50 students escaped without injury after the school bus they were riding caught fire. Melissa Robinette, a spokeswoman for a Spartanburg school district, says the driver then parked the bus, helped students evacuate and then arriving firefighters put out the fire. (Photo: Alex Hicks Jr./The Spartanburg Herald-Journal via AP)
Despite the high-profile fires — euphemistically called “thermal events” — experts who maintain that school buses remain an extremely safe mode of transportation say certain buses, those more prone to fires, need to be yanked from the roads first.
In South Carolina, 350,000 students — almost half of the state’s entire student population — ride buses to school every day.
THE PROBLEM: OLD BUSES
An overwhelming number of thermal events have happened on a type of school bus (Type D) with the engine in the back and purchased in 1995 or 1996.
This was the type of bus that caught fire in Anderson last Wednesday and in Duncan last May.
In 2007, the General Assembly passed a state law requiring the state to replace school buses after 15 years on the road.
But lawmakers have not always allocated the $34 million needed every year to buy new buses, a Greenville News investigation has found.
As a result, the 1995 and 1996 Type D buses should have been replaced by 2010 — eight years ago.
In addition, about 2,000 South Carolina school buses — more than 37 percent of the fleet — are 15 years old or older. The Education Department now says it needs $160 million to replace old buses.
Today, more than 600 of them still transport children to and from school throughout the state.
These types of buses have accounted for 82 of the 108 thermal events — or a whopping 76 percent — since 1995.
“The high rate of events on these buses had several contributing factors,” said Mike Bullman, director of maintenance for the state Education Department. “They include the age of the bus along with very high mileage, design factors and the rear engine simply being more difficult to inspect and service.”
The state Education Department has acted aggressively to get rid of the buses. As recently as 2016, there were 1,926 of them, according to the department compared to the 600 still on the road today.
While the fires are a serious concern, older buses are generally plagued with other problems: they’re less safe, cost more to operate and break down more often, according to education officials.
State lawmakers say they’ve been slow to replace old school buses due to the lingering economic effects of the Great Recession. Some Democratic leaders, meanwhile, say the GOP-led Legislature’s neglect of school buses shows a callousness toward low-income families who most often use school buses.
PRIORITY NO. 1
Even with limited funds, the education department has decreased the number of those Type D style buses by making them a priority for replacement. Every new school bus takes the place of a 1995 or 1996 Type D bus first — despite the fact that there are about 800 school buses on South Carolina roads that are older, according to the state Education Department.
For instance, 635 buses are 30 years old — double the age allowed by state guidelines — but those buses have experienced far fewer thermal events than the Type D 1995 and 1996 buses.
According to Mike Bullan, who heads maintenance for the state Education Department, a number of problems can cause a bus engine to overheat or catch fire. The No. 1 culprit has been electrical problems that can involve a bus’ alternator, starter or cabling system, he said.
Turbochargers are another culprit. A bearing or seal on the turbocharger may fail, allowing oil to spill onto the exhaust system, Bullman said.
These two problems account for almost 70 percent of the thermal events on the Type D 1995 and 1996 buses, he said.
Maintenance staff can try to prevent the problems but workers can only do so much with a 23-year-old bus with a record of severe problems, Bullman said.
“In some cases it would require a near complete replacement of the wiring,” Bullman said. “Also it still wouldn’t take care of the structural concerns. As with most things, they can be addressed with money and labor.
“However, with the high cost and labor required it would really go against conventional wisdom to take that direction with such a large group of well-driven buses,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’d still have a 1995/96 model bus that isn’t nearly as efficient or reliable as a replacement unit.”
For Kathleen Nielsen, the parent of two bus-riding children at Buena Vista Elementary, the issue is simple: Children are too important to trust to buses with a history of failure.
“We’re grateful for the bus service,” Nielsen said, “but can’t we have the best service it can be when we’re talking about kids?”
Paul Hyde covers education and everything else under the South Carolina sun. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.
Previous stories in our three-part series on South Carolina’s School Bus crisis:
Part 2: While students ride risky buses, governor and lawmakers haggle over how to buy new ones
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