- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

DALLAS — A bus evacuating nursing home patients burst into flames yesterday just south of the city, killing 24, as it sat in the traffic jam of coastal residents fleeing Hurricane Rita.

The frightening prospect of thousands being trapped on Interstate 45 as Rita blew into Texas forced Dallas County officials to remove the blackened, burned-out shell of the bus with some bodies still inside.

“They’re very concerned that the freeway is backed up from Harris County [Houston] to Dallas County,” said Dallas County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Don Peritz. “There are literally thousands of people who are trying to escape what could be hurricane-force winds.”

Mr. Peritz said more than a dozen passengers, including one who was 101 years old, had been taken to Dallas hospitals. Officials said the vehicle’s brakes or metal lodged in the tire may have sparked the fire that was then fed by explosions of passengers’ oxygen tanks.

The bus was headed north about 6:30 a.m., when fire erupted in the rear of the vehicle.

Donald Campbell, 55, of Galveston County — fleeing with his family to safety in north Texas — said he saw the bus pass with “fire shooting out of its rear end.”

Some three minutes later, he said, the bus exploded, “with debris going every which way.”

He said some other vehicles were hit by pieces of the bus and heavy chunks of debris carried across a service road into a metal fence surrounding a truck dealership.

More than 20 emergency vehicles surrounded the accident scene, and northbound traffic — already bumper-to-bumper along the 270-mile corridor between Houston and Dallas — was halted for about four hours.

The bus had been chartered by the Brighton Gardens Nursing Home in Bellaire, a western suburb of Houston. Brighton Gardens is owned by a Virginia corporation, Sunrise Senior Living of McLean.

A spokesman for Sunrise said 38 residents and six Brighton Gardens employees were aboard the bus.

“Our primary concern is for the safety of our residents and we are shocked and saddened that this event occurred during evacuation,” said Sunrise board Chairman and CEO Paul Klaasen.

Dallas County Deputy Sheriff David Robertson said he believed the original fire was caused by a piece of metal lodged in one of the rear wheels, causing the tires to lock up.

The wheel, he said, was burned down to the rim, with the tires melted away.

It was not clear how many explosions occurred.

Roberto Orozco, 31, said he saw the bus pull over and several carloads of people stop and run to help those inside. As they approached, Mr. Orozco said, the first of two explosions drove them back.

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