Flat Tire Blamed
Eight Whitefish students, three coaches and bus driver Frank Newberry escaped with only moments to spare before the 47-passenger bus was engulfed in flames on Interstate 90 about 15 miles west of Laurel. No one was injured.
The team was returning from the Class A state tennis tournament.
“It appears that an inside dual tire went flat and the casing rubbed on the wheel well to create friction that caused the fire,” said Dale Duff, owner of Rocky Mountain Transportation, the Whitefish firm that supplied the bus. He cited a preliminary investigation report issued Tuesday afternoon.
Duff said three mechanics inspected the bus afterward, including an independent mechanic from a Billings firm.
Montana Highway Patrolman Steve Wisniewski, who is certified by the state Department of Transportation to investigate such accidents, said he thought the wheel bearings came loose, which caused the brakes to fail.
“The whole wheel assembly seized up,” Wisniewski said.
He fined the bus company $85 for having faulty equipment.
Duff disputed the patrolman’s initial assessment, saying he would have had to disassemble the hub to make a judgment about the wheel bearings.
“The wheel bearings are intact,” Duff stressed, adding that the 1988 bus was within its “reasonable life span” and had been routinely inspected. A Kalispell firm replaced the brakes and wheel seals in late January, he said. More than $5,000 was spent to give the bus all new components this year.
Duff said his immediate concern was for the safety of the passengers. Newberry called Duff on his cellular phone as the bus was burning.
“He’s a qualified guy who’s been with me for years,” Duff said about Newberry.
Whitefish Superintendent of Schools lauded Newberry for quickly getting the passengers off the bus once he learned of the fire.
“I’m very pleased with how Rocky Mountain Transportation has conducted business before and after the fire,” House said. “The driver did an absolutely great job of giving forceful directions. There was no doubt who was in charge.
“Most importantly, nobody was hurt and the kids are safe.”
WISNIEWSKI was the first responder to the accident and arrived within six minutes after the emergency call was made.
He said the passengers were lucky to escape unharmed.
“It sounded like it was just a matter of seconds,” Wisniewski said. “The students could smell smoke, but they didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
One of the girls on the team told the trooper she could feel the floor getting hot in the back of the bus.
A just-married couple driving to Bozeman saw one of the bus tires on fire and alerted Newberry by flashing a sign that said: “You are on fire.”
The newlyweds used a Magic Marker and sign boards they had used to decorate their car to get the driver’s attention, Wisniewski said. It took about 10 miles for Newberry to notice the sign and pull over.
The students lost their trophies, laptops and other electronic equipment, and luggage. Duff said the passengers will be compensated for their lost possessions.
House said some students got off the bus without their shoes, but some of the passengers had credit cards and were able to help one another out with personal items once they got to their hotel in Bozeman.
The bus was valued at about $200,000; to purchase the same model new today would cost more than $400,000, Duff said.
A relief charter bus was sent from Billings to take the tennis team and coaches to the Windgate Hotel in Bozeman where they had intended to spend the night. A Rocky Mountain Transportation bus picked up the group Sunday morning.
IT WAS the second bus fire for Rocky Mountain Transportation this year. In February, the back end of a Whitefish SNOW bus owned by the firm caught fire on U.S. 2 in Evergreen. Duff said a broken injector tip in the internal part of the engine was pinpointed as the cause of the mechanical failure.
The SNOW bus, used to transport Big Mountain skiers, was on its way to a scheduled repair when the mishap occurred.
Saturday’s bus fire was a grim reminder for longtime Whitefish residents of the Whitefish school-bus crash in January 1984 that killed nine people and injured 17. A school bus owned by Rocky Mountain Transportation was carrying the Whitefish High School wrestling team, cheerleaders and coaches when it collided with a fuel tanker truck on U.S. 2 near Essex and burst into flames during a snowstorm.
“You don’t know how many times a year we talk about that [bus crash of 1984],” House said, adding that the tragedy 23 years ago reinforces the ultimate goal of keeping students safe on out-of-town trips.
Last year the Whitefish school district started a travel manifest system that gives copies of passenger lists to the driver, coaches and the athletic director, “so that when the bus departs, we know who’s on it,” House said.
The district also made the decision last year to sideline smaller vehicles and use buses exclusively when transporting students out of town.
“It costs more, but it’s been shown that school buses are the safest form of transportation,” House said. “It’s ironic to have a bus burn, but accidents do happen.”