As a bus driver, you go through training to help you prepare for potential emergencies. Some of those incidents might involve fights breaking out on buses or getting into an accident.
Rarely do drivers think they will face what Kevin McKay recently experienced, where he almost became like Greek mythology’s Charon, ferrying children across the Styx river.
But what they did endure was a hellish vision, and there were points where they thought they might not make it. But they kept plugging on until they had left the Camp Fire behind.
Many children had already been picked up from Ponderosa Elementary School in Paradise by their parents and guardians, but 22 were still there, and the fires were getting closer. McKay had only been a bus driver there for several months, but he knew what to do because he knew what would happen if he didn’t.
The fire was unlike the fires he’d seen before. “But the fact that it was coming down in 1,000 places, it was unheard of,” said McKay, according to CNN.
Fortunately, his family had already made it to safety, so he was able to concentrate on getting these kids out. After conferring with the principal, McKay and two other teachers loaded the kids in the school bus and got out of there.
“It just kind of looked like we’d be headed into Mordor,” McKay said. Smoke filled the air and they passed patches of fire.
“The sky was really menacing,” recalled Mary Ludwig, one of the teachers. “It was very scary. It felt like Armageddon.”
But many others had the same idea, and were trying to flee, jamming up the roads and forcing the bus to idle in smoke-filled areas. It started to affect the students, and they became groggy and lethargic.
Should they leave the bus and hoof it? Should they stay and try to wait out the traffic? To make matters worse, they only had one water bottle among all of them.
They decided to stay put, hoping to get past the traffic and continue to safety. In the meantime, they took a shirt of McKay’s, tore it up, dampened each patch of material, and handed them out to the kids so they could breathe through them and filter out the smoke.
“It was so crazy, and there were fires left and right everywhere you looked,” a 10-year-old named Charlotte Merz recalled.
The fire was making many people desperate, and they watched accidents bloom around them. They were hit once, but the bus kept trundling forward. They picked up a stray, too: a woman whose car had given up and left her stranded.
They prayed. They reviewed safety material. They got contact info from all the kids.
After five hours, they made it to safety. “That’s when we realized — it’s a silly statement, but Paradise is lost,” the brave driver said.
The parents of the kids and the husband of the teacher they’d picked up were incredibly grateful for McKay’s efforts. He had ferried his crew through hell — but that was fine because, as Ludwig said, “We had the bus driver from heaven.”
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