Fire guts empty RFTA bus
December 14, 2005
Basalt firefighters said Wednesday it was fortunate a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus was off-duty and empty when a fire apparently started at the rear axle and spread to the passenger compartment.”This could have been a mass-casualty situation if the bus was full,” said Bob Guion, a captain with the Basalt and Rural Fire District.No one was injured in the blaze. Guion said a fire in the passenger compartment would be potentially fatal with a full bus because of the toxic gases from various materials burning. The interior includes foam seats and upholstery, a wooden floor board and foam plastic in the ceiling.”That stuff wouldn’t be good to breathe in,” he said.The bus was capable of holding 63 passengers. At 65 feet, it is longer than most RFTA buses and was articulated with an accordionlike partition in the middle.Two other buses that are the same model and same year of Neoplan will also be scrutinized. If need be, they will be taken out of service, RFTA’s director of maintenance, Kenny Osier, said.
“We’ll probably take a look at them very closely in the next 24 hours,” he said. “We’ll error on the side of safety.”The fire gutted the bus shortly after 10 a.m. while a driver was delivering the empty bus to Carbondale. The 2002 Neoplan bus had been in valleywide service during the morning rush hour, although the specific routes weren’t immediately available.The driver was headed downvalley when he reported the bus feeling “sluggish,” like an emergency brake was engaged, according to fire department and RFTA officials. He later saw smoke and heard small explosions or popping noises, Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said.The bus driver pulled off Highway 82 and into a park-and-ride on Two Rivers Road by Aspen Junction. He discovered fire outside the bus and tried to put it out with an extinguisher carried on the bus, according to Kent Blackmer, RFTA’s co-director of operations. The extinguisher was ineffective because of the location of the fire.RFTA didn’t release the driver’s name.Guion and Jerry Peetz, the fire department’s operations director, were the first firefighters to arrive on the scene. Peetz said they found flames shooting from the rear axle area and from the passenger compartment at the back of the bus. The windows were blowing out from the heat.
“The flames were coming out 10 feet from every window,” Peetz said. “The entire [left] side was on fire.”They attacked the right side of the bus first with a fire hose because it was a dozen feet or so from several cars parked at the site. None of those vehicles appeared to sustain heat damage.Peetz and Guion broke out windows in the front of the bus for additional access to the flames. After reducing the size of the fire, they entered the 65-foot vehicle with a hose and attacked the flames head on.Guion said he could only see a few feet in front of him because the smoke was so thick. He said it was impossible to gauge how far into the bus they were while trying to knock the flames down.Witnesses reported a huge ball of white smoke billowed over the scene. Basalt police closed Two Rivers Road for a couple of hours.The bus was a total loss, although some parts appeared salvageable. The fire wall protected the engine even though the engine compartment is by the rear axle, where the fire is believed to have originated. A few tires appeared in good shape. Otherwise, the bus was a mess.
Huge blisters blotched out most of the paint on the left side. The interior was fried to charcoal black. Sections still smoldered an hour after the blaze. Plastic covering advertisements that run along the ceiling at about eye-level drooped down after it melted in the severe heat.The bus cost $455,000 new, Osier said. It’s current blue book value is between $176,000 and $186,000, he said.A flatbed truck hauled the bus to RFTA’s Carbondale facility. RFTA staff will examine the bus and ask an outside agency, probably the safety division of Colorado State Patrol, for an assessment, Osier said.Osier said he couldn’t speculate on what caused the fire. RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said a brake problem is “high on the list of suspects.” It is possible that some force other than the driver activated the brakes. RFTA will examine everything from the effects of the prolonged cold weather to the maintenance history on this particular bus.”We’re not ruling out anything and we’re not ruling in anything,” Blankenship said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org