A quick-thinking bus driver in Virginia saved the lives of 20 students amid blinding rain and a bus that went up in flames last week.
“Whew my God! It was just scary and knowing my daughter sits on the second seat,” said Della Clayton, a mother of a 5-year-old.
In all of Sondra Artis’ 18-years of driving a school bus, March 24 is a day she won’t soon forget.
“The rain was coming down so hard, and some of the places you couldn’t hardly see, and most of the roads I travel are back roads, country roads,” Artis said of the memorable day.
Artis works as a school bus driver and substitute teacher for Surry County Schools, in Surry, Virginia, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Richmond with about 6,500 residents, 41% Black.
She was driving bus 35, or as she called it, “her big baby,” with 20 students onboard ranging in age from 4 to 17 years old. As they were about 3 to 4 miles away from their destination, Artis noticed something unusual. Her defroster wasn’t working. Then an odor started to fill the air.
“Then as I got closer to the end of my route, I started to smell something, I said mmm, OK, I kept looking and looking and wiping and wiping, then I had one student who asked, ‘Mrs. Artis, are you OK?’ so I guess I had a look on my face,” Artis said.
Between the heavy rain, frosty windows, strange smell and what appeared to be smoke, the veteran bus driver grew increasingly concerned, so she called for a mechanic and radioed a nearby bus just in case hers was on the verge of breaking down. Little did she know it was about to get much worse.
“When I pressed on the gas, the smoke started to come in and the scent got very powerful, so I activated all of my lights and went on down the road and as I turned onto the church ground, something went ‘pop, pop,’ like a firework, and then all of a sudden, a big red stop sign lit up saying stop engine, and I said, you don’t have to worry about that because I’m getting ready to stop anyway,” Artis said.
Artis knew with a burning bus filling with smoke time was of the essence, so she resorted to her fire drill training she thought she would never have to use in real life.
“I said, ‘I need you to get ready and we’re going to do a real drill. Just stay calm and grab all your belongings.’ I said, ‘When I stop the bus, I need all my high-schoolers to open the back door, all high school and middle school go out that back door. Elementary, you go out the front,’” Artis said she told the students in preparation for an emergency evacuation of the bus.
In a matter of seconds all 20 kids got off the burning bus safely. In the small town of Surry word travels quickly, and for Della Clayton, whose 5-year-old daughter Laila rides Artis’ bus, the incident caused a full-blown panic.
“My sister called me because she saw the video [of the burning bus] on Facebook. It was just scary, and knowing my daughter sits on the second seat next to that door — whew, just to see that whole bus, I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve seen it on the news, but nothing like that has happened in our little town,” Clayton said.
Artis says once all the students were off the burning bus they got on another bus and continued to school, where they were checked by a school nurse. It wasn’t until they were pulling away from where the bus was parked in a church parking lot that Artis grasped how lucky she and the students were.
“We left, and before we could get to school, not even a good five minutes later, I got a phone call, and he said, ‘Good thing y’all pulled off, because it went right up in flames,’ and all I could say is ‘thank you’ Jesus,’” Artis said.
Clayton says she cannot thank the hero bus driver enough for saving her daughter and everyone else onboard. “She substitutes my daughter’s class sometimes, and she always gives me updates on how she’s doing, so she’s just always been a blessing,” Clayton said.
With her old bus destroyed, Artis is now driving a spare bus. She says the district hasn’t determined what exactly caused the fire. Residents of Surry have flooded social media thanking Artis’ heroic efforts calling her a local hero.
“All my babies are OK, and I’m OK,” Artis said reflecting on the gravity of the day. While grateful for the recognition, Artis thanks God for allowing everyone on the burning bus to live to see another day.