Safety Concerns: Wheels fall off moving school buses within days of each other

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. - The I-Team uncovered a serious safety concern with local school buses. There have been at least two recent incidents where wheels flew off the buses while driving in Hillsborough County.

Investigator Jarrod Holbrook reveals why the problem doesn't stop there.

Parents were stunned by pictures of the incidents obtained by the I-Team.

"Oh my God that is really bad," Sherrie Thomas said.

Another parent called it "absolutely shocking".

"That's a big problem," another parent exclaimed.

One father said, "I know the wheels on the bus go round and round right? But it don't come off!"

We asked Jim Beekman, the Transportation Director for Hillsborough County Schools if he's ever seen anything like it. Jim started his career as a mechanic in the 80's.

He answered, "I've not experienced this before not in my career...two brand new buses back to back, there's an issue."

The first incident happened while bus number 5457 was driving down the road.

While Jim's team was inspecting it, he told us, "then we get another call where another one has come off on Interstate 4."

Another bus, this time 2 wheels go flying off of bus number 5453 on I-4. It happened one working day apart from the first case.

In describing the second incident Jim said, "it also looks like one of the wheels got caught in here and created some damage in here. Possibly more damage because it was damaged throughout the back."

In the pictures, you can see the axle resting on the concrete on a busy highway.

Luckily no children were on board either of these incidents.

In both cases, children were either just dropped off or about to be picked up.

But the I-Team learned the problem goes deeper.

We found at least 20 other buses had loose lug nuts.

That's right loose wheels.

School officials say there were possibly more but not every case was documented.

All of the 22 buses with issues are part of a new batch of 40, purchased from Bluebird Bus Company in Georgia.

They were all brand new propane buses, which cost taxpayers about 4.2-million dollars.

Reporter: "How confident are you that it wasn't human error on your end?"
Jim Beekman: "Absolutely. Because they weren't even touched. "

Jim told us Bluebird sends buses to their distributor who is responsible for torquing the lug nuts on a bus.

Afterwards, they're marked and delivered to the school department.

The manual states they shouldn't have to tighten them again until after 12,000 miles. The incidents happened before that time frame.

Reporter: "In your experience is this a factory problem?"
Jim Beekman: "I would say it has to be."

Parents we spoke with are furious.

"You have to understand what your job is and what you're dealing with," one dad told us.

"There should be like a pre-check around the bus before you even take the bus out. I think that is ridiculous so I hope they do better," one mother said.

Bluebird executives are refusing to interview with us.

The company's Communications and Marketing Manager, Justyne Lobelle, only told us they investigated the incident in a written statement:

"We checked the installation tool and relevant calibration records for these buses and found them within acceptable parameters.  While we could not find the root cause of the issue, we are satisfied that it is an isolated event."

Hillsborough's School Transportation Director is not taking any chances.

They are now going to inspect all buses the second they arrive at the lot and check them more often than they're required to.

He also notified Florida's Department of Education in hopes they investigate all of the buses in the state purchased during that time. 

We have requested information from the state's education department, at the time of publishing this article we are still waiting for our records.

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Jarrod Holbrook is an Emmy and AP Award-winning Investigative Reporter for the ABC Action News I-Team. Do you have a story idea? Contact Jarrod on FacebookTwitter, or via email at jarrod.holbrook@wfts.com.

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