Alfred “Al” Lewis hid his concern Thursday morning after he smelled smoke, then saw fire inside his school bus while driving special-needs students to school.
Hours later he was being hailed as a hero for helping to get his passengers — two of them in wheelchairs — off the bus, which was quickly gutted by fire on a Brooklyn Park street.
Lewis was driving the students to Osseo grade school classes when “a flame came out of the heat duct and smoke began to fill the space by the passenger door,” he said.
Lewis pulled over in the 7800 block of Yates Avenue N. and swiftly went into action, knowing it was important to remain calm in front of the kids.
“I opened the passenger door and my window,” he said. “This created a draft that drew the smoke out instead of allowing it to fill the bus.
“The safest thing for me to do was to try to extinguish the flames before I could evacuate the students …” Lewis said. “I grabbed the fire extinguisher and sprayed it into the vents while the nurse on board was lining the kids up in the back of the bus at the emergency exit.”
Lewis calmly gathered the first student, then another who were both in wheelchairs, and carried them outside to safety.
The nurse, whose name was not disclosed, hurried the two other students out the rear door of the bus, where they waited for first responders as the cab of the bus filled with smoke and flames.
‘This was a team effort’
Lewis, 59, of New Hope, was quick to credit others, from the nurse on board to the police and firefighters who swiftly arrived.
“Please know this wasn’t ‘all Al.’ This was a team effort,” he said. “The nurse on board was so helpful. We worked together, stayed calm and pulled it off.”
A police officer arrived and also tried to extinguish the blaze, but the front of the bus was still engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived — with all passengers safely waiting outside — shortly before 8:30 a.m.
“The fire rescue team were terrific. They arrived with teddy bears for each of the kids,” he said, joking that he didn’t get one. “The teddy bears were a great distraction and made the kids so happy. They played with their teddy bears and stayed focused on something happy and positive. It was very calming for them.”
Investigators were inspecting the bus to learn how the fire started and they were also conducting an internal review, said Stephanie Creech, manager of corporate communications for First Student bus company, part of FirstGroup America based in Cincinnati.
“First Student is incredibly pleased with this driver’s performance and very proud and very grateful to him,” Creech said. “He did everything right by the book and then some, and placed the safety of the students and the nurse who were on the bus above everything and got them quickly out of harm’s way.”
From bus company officials to parents to police, many offered words of thanks for Lewis’ actions.
“The bus driver did a nice job,” Brooklyn Park police Cmdr. Mark Bruley said. “He didn’t hesitate.”
“I was just so happy when all the kids were off the bus and safe,” said Lewis, a full-time driver for First Student for six years. “I just did what we all do here. I believe any of our First Student drivers would have done the same thing.
“I just did what we’re trained to do,” he said.
Caring for the students
Lewis often shared stories of his riders with family members and others, telling of the endearing things they did. Many parents had written over the years of their appreciation for how he made the kids with disabilities feel so at ease.
“He would have not been able to handle it if something had happened to any of those kids,” said Lewis’ former wife, Bonnie Benson of Robbinsdale, whom he called shortly after the fire, when he was still pumped up with adrenaline.
Osseo School District spokeswoman Barb Olson said the children waited 20 to 25 minutes until a new bus arrived and resumed their trip to the school about 5½ miles away.
When they did get to school, the pupils were met by district staff “to check them out” and ensure they were fine, Olson said.
Undaunted, Lewis went right back to work. He got another special-needs bus, and he drove his usual afternoon route.
“It was good for me to continue with my daily route as usual,” he said. “More importantly, it was good for the kids. Seeing me back for their afternoon pickup sent a message that everything is OK.”
Thursday night, Lewis again spoke to his former wife, telling her that it not only was the nurse and first responders who came through but, he believes, some divine intervention from above, too.
“How could you not believe when you get the help I had?” he said.
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.