RIVERVIEW, Fla - The bus pulled up to a bus stop at U.S. 301 South at the Windermere Apartments when a student who just got on and was near the back of the bus noticed flames. Tiara White was making her way down the aisle when a friend told her to turn around.
"Everybody was panicking to get off, so I was scared," said the Spoto High School sophomore. "I looked back and saw the flames and sparks from the back of the pipe."
The 15-year-old said the students couldn't use the emergency exit because the fire started in the rear engine, close to that emergency door.
White added that some of that annual fire drill training must have kicked in. The students, 64 in all according to school officials, moved quickly. Half were outside and had not gotten on the bus yet, but the others walked single file out the front door, guided by their bus driver, Chassey Graham, a woman White calls a hero for taking extra steps to make sure all the kids made it out safely.
"Once everyone got out of the bus she went back multiple times to make sure no one was on the bus," said White.
Graham, who has been a bus driver since 1997, also called 9-1-1. Crews put the flames out in seconds.
"It appears the fire started in the rear of the bus, that is where the engine compartment is located," said Ronnie Rivera a spokesperson with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.
The school bus, a 2002, just passed inspection in November and was due for another safety review on Thursday. The state mandates inspections every 28 days the buses in services. At this point officials point to mechanical failure, but it's still under investigation.
Officials also already reviewed video taken from inside the bus.
"From the student who noticed the flames in the back of the bus to the bus driver who took action immediately and got all 64 students off the bus as quickly as possible and got them to a safe spot, everyone did everything they should have done and followed all the evacuation procedures," said Tanya Arja, Hillsborough County School District spokeswoman.
Officials stress that parents should not worry and that this is a rare occurrence. The last school bus fire was about four years ago and no students were on board. Also, every bus is equipped with flame retardant seats and reinforced gas tanks to help ensure safety.
While the district does not keep safety and maintenance records online, any concerned parent can reach out to the district and request the reports.
Officials said there are more than 1,400 buses in Hillsborough County and in addition to the safety checks by state licensed imprecators every month, the district does routine maintenance frequently.
The close call won't stop White from getting on and she is more grateful than ever for her bus driver.
"I could tell that she cared, when she was making sure everyone was off the bus," said White.