BY Paul Groessel
Sun POST Newspapers
He did not have to think about it, and after what may have been 60 seconds but seemed like forever, in the bus driver’s estimation, four students were safe.
While en route to Elm Creek Elementary School in Maple Grove on March 6, school bus driver Alfred Lewis pulled over after he saw smoke coming from the door, and took two wheelchair-bound children off the bus while a nurse helped two others out the back door before the vehicle was engulfed in flames.
No one was injured in the incident, which took place on the 7800 block of Yates Avenue in Brooklyn Park. The four students were given teddy bears to help them relax.
“They did,” Lewis said in between laughs. “And I said, ‘What about the driver?’”
Lewis got his teddy bear a month later.
First Student, Lewis’ employer, presented the driver with his bear, a certificate and the First Student Meritorious Service Award on Tuesday, April 8,
Osseo Area Schools Supt. Kate Maguire, a member of the State Patrol, First Student executives and Lewis’ fellow bus drivers were on hand to offer their congratulations and support.
Maguire said that school bus drivers are often overlooked for their daily efforts transporting students safely.
“We depend on First Student and Al and other drivers to get our students to school and perhaps take that for granted occasionally,” she said. “It’s situations like this that remind you about the power of our bus drivers and our bus company getting kids to school safely.”
Initial reports indicated it was an electrical fire, but subsequent details about the cause of the fire have not been released.
“(The) bus driver got everyone off and away from the vehicle so there really was no risk to anyone … because the bus driver did a nice job,” Brooklyn Park Police Cmdr. Mark Bruley said after the incident occurred.
Lewis told his story rather simply:
“On the fifth pick-up I got that brake-pad smell,” he said. “And then I’m looking around and then I look over at the door and it started smoking. And we pulled over right away. And I looked at the nurse and I said, ‘We’re going out the back door,’ and that’s exactly what we did. And after we got off the bus it was gone.
“That’s about it, I guess.”
When the fire started, the wheelchair lift on the bus could not be accessed, so Lewis lifted the two students in non-electric wheelchairs to the back of the bus.
“We were lucky because they were small and they weren’t electric wheelchairs so I could lift them right off the bus,” he said.
After the short conference, Bill Dagherty, the location safety manager for First Student in Brooklyn Park, said he was impressed that Lewis thought to open the window to ventilate smoke amid the other things he had to negotiate in the situation. That wasn’t part of training, he said.
“That was his instinct,” said Dagherty. “… That’s what makes it exceptional.”
Lewis thought it was not that exceptional. When a reporter asked if he considered himself a hero, he quickly said no.
“No. I think I did what all of us do. Everyday,” Lewis said. “I think we’re all trained to do it and all of these drivers are the same. They’d do the same.”
First Student’s Kurt Schumann said that Lewis would be helping the company with safety training in the spring.
The students – his kids, he called them – are doing fine, in Lewis’ estimation.
“Oh, they are my kids,” Lewis said. “I’ve had them all year. I mean they’re my kids during the day. I pick them up, I take them home. Yeah. They didn’t cry. They didn’t scream. They just looked at us. They knew everything was OK.”
Now, they are just curious about their set of wheels, he said.
“They still want their bus back,” Lewis said. “They’re still asking, ‘When are we getting our bus back?’”
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