The school bus had passed inspection and had been operating smoothly on its Thursday morning runs in the Hickman Mills district.
But something went wrong as 34 children from Warford Elementary School were on their way home shortly before 4 p.m.
Driver D’Anthony Gildon noticed a little smoke coming from the engine compartment.
“On my second stop I noticed there was a lot more smoke coming up from the outside of the bus,” Gildon said Friday.
Within minutes the bus was engulfed in flames, but the children had been safely evacuated. There was a little hysteria but no injuries. Everyone made it home.
“He’s a hero,” said Hickman Mills spokeswoman Ruth Terrell, speaking of the man who has been driving for the Apple Bus Company since Aug. 2014.
Gildon pulled over at Cypress Avenue and Grandview Road and told the children what was going on. He instructed one of the older kids to open the rear exit door. They couldn’t go out the front.
“The bus was already in flames in the front,” Gildon said, recalling the scene. “I didn’t know if it was going to explode or blow. That was my main concern. The gas tank is on the side of the bus, by the door. I started hearing hissing and stuff. I heard some popping noise.”
After the children were evacuated Gildon instructed them to back away, past a couple of houses, as the fire continued to grow. They obeyed.
“They knew the matter was serious,” Gildon said.
A witness to the conflagration captured it on video.
Just this week, Apple drivers in the Hickman Mills district participated in safety drills that included emergency evacuations, said Drew Tarwater, director of support services for the Apple Bus Company, based in Belton.
“The training was about proper protocol, front door exit, rear door exit,” Tarwater said. “Our driver followed everything perfectly.”
Another bus was sent to take the children home. Terrell said Gildon went along with them to inform concerned parents what had happened.
The bus that burned had recently passed inspection by the Missouri Highway Patrol. The fire is under investigation. The company said it is working with the manufacturer to determine the possible cause.