Campus bus erupts in flames

A Duke Transit bus caught fire Wednesday afternoon at the Main West bus stop, filling the sky with acrid black smoke and drawing the attention of dozens of students and visitors.

The fire broke out in the engine compartment at the rear of the bus, a 1998 Bluebird model. No one was on the vehicle during the blaze.

As clean-up and towing crews began their work, students and visitors caught a glimpse of the charred and gutted back of the vehicle.

The bus, which was parked in front of the Allen Building when the fire began at approximately 4 p.m., experienced transmission problems while running the East-West route, said Lt. Sara-Jane Raines, administrative services executive officer for the Duke University Police Department.

The incident also forced buses to pick students up and drop them off at the traffic circle at the head of Chapel Drive.

Bus driver William Hester said he noticed the smell while coming up the hill on Chapel Drive.

"It smelled like a fan belt was burning," he said. "Something popped out a couple of times, so I stopped when I got to the top and let the students off."

After all students had left the bus, Hester attempted to diagnose the problem. While in the front of the bus, he was informed that the bus was smoking. He called his supervisor, and flames became visible about the time he got off the phone. Hester then attempted to douse the fire with an extinguisher carried aboard the bus, but he was not successful.

"I had more fire than I did fire extinguisher," he said.

Students said it was clear that there were problems with the bus during the trip to West.

"The bus was making funny noises, and after we started driving it smelled like burning plastic," said sophomore Lindsey Havko.

She said the bus died at the circle, but Hester was able to coax it back into motion.

"At that point it was going no faster than two miles per hour up Chapel Drive, and it reeked of noxious fumes," she said.

Duke transportation officials said buses are serviced at least once a month, and drivers look over their vehicles daily.

At about 4:11 p.m.-shortly after firefighters arrived-there was a large conflagration and a booming noise, but firefighters had the blaze doused within minutes.

Capt. David Griffith of the Durham Fire Department, crew chief for the firefighting team, said such fires are usually minor because the gas line is protected against explosions.

"This was a regular small passenger vehicle fire," he said. "There have been bus fires in the past that have been more involved than this."

He said the major problem was the release of hydraulic fluid from the bus. Firefighters used Speedy Dry, an absorbing agent, to prevent seepage. Fred Knipper, fire and safety manager in the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office, said an OESO spill team would run clean-up on the scene. A team from John's Towing and Recovery, the Durham-based company that towed the burnt-out bus, also assisted with the clean-up.

"A lot of times when a spill is inside of a building it's a lot easier," Knipper said. "It's harder when it's outside because you have to make sure stuff doesn't get washed away."

Officials said the bus was unlikely to be rebuilt or put back into commission. Executive Vice President Tallman Trask pegged the cost of a new bus at about $250,000.

"We'll get new buses someday," he added.

As the cloud of smoke grew thicker, a large crowd gathered to watch the excitement. Maggie Gray, a visiting high school senior from Kentucky, said the incident had not adversely affected her opinion of Duke.

"You guys deal well with tragedies," she said. "Exploding buses are kind of a highlight of university life, I guess."

With bus transportation stopped and then displaced, the primary concern for many students was getting around. As flames erupted from the back of the bus, a student was overheard to say, "Let's take the C-2." Some students complained of delays in getting to classes and meetings off West Campus. For others, the fire was just a small blip on their radar screens.

"I'm not too concerned," junior Florence Noel said. "With the climate around here, it's not the first thing on my mind."

Leslie Griffith, Shreya Rao, Steve Veres and Tiffany Webber contributed to this report.


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