Fire engulfed and destroyed a ÒTeen MachineÓ bus 15 minutes before it was to carry 20 to 30 teenagers from Stone Bridge High School to another high school after the All Star Battle of the Bands competition last Friday.
"We could have had a real tragedy on our hands," said Delbert White, a member of the Advisory Commission on Youth. "It was scary, let me tell you. I can't recall witnessing anything like this before."
School Board member Bob Ohneiser (Broad Run) said Friday's blaze destroyed the bus in "minutes."
"Just the possibility that our kids could have been on one of those buses, it would be completely unacceptable knowing how fast it burned," Ohneiser said.
TEENS WATCHED the fire from the school. Alex Hagee, 15, of Sterling, said the incident was "a little scary."
"I was about to say, 'That's crazy,'" she recalled. "It was insane, a bus catching on fire."
Ohneiser said he wants to prevent the Virginia Regional Transportation Authority buses from transporting Loudoun's teens to activities in the future. They are "inferior" to school buses, he said.
"The school system needs to step up its participation with the county," he said. "We have to make our buses available."
Carol Kost, chairwoman of the commission, said it was too early to reach that conclusion. "Once we know the cause of this, we can decide," she said Monday.
She said she could see no reason to discontinue the authority's bus system, if the problem was manufacturing and not maintenance.
Mark McGregor, the authority's chief executive officer, said the $106,000 bus was "brand new." A fire marshal is investigating the cause, and it appears to have started in the engine compartment, he said.
"If it turns out to be a mechanical failure, that could happen on a school bus just as easily as a public bus," he said. "To say it wouldn't happen on a school bus would be ridiculous."
Mary Maguire, a spokeswoman for Loudoun Fire & Rescue, said the cause is under investigation, and authorities do not suspect arson.
She said the Ashburn and Moorefield fire departments were called to the scene about 9:24 p.m. The blaze also damaged two vehicles that were parked nearby, resulting in about $4,000 in damages.
KOST SAID she approached school administrators early on when the Loudoun Youth Initiative started looking at ways to provide transportation for the county's teenagers. School officials complained that they already were having trouble getting enough bus drivers. "We never really pushed the issue, because Mark McGregor was around."
McGregor served on a Youth Initiative committee and proposed using the authority's buses. The Initiative has been a driving force to steer the area's teenagers away from alcohol, tobacco, other drugs, violence and gangs.
Kost said it was a "win-win' situation, because the authority could expand it services and meet the needs of the youth.
"Teen Machine" buses provided transportation from three different high schools in Loudoun County.
Ohneiser said the driver would not have had time to pull over before anyone was burned, if the fire started during the trip home. "It went that quick," he said. "It went up like a Roman candle."
The All Star Battle of the Bands was held in conjunction with Loudoun Youth Week. Other activities included a StompFest competition, a dialogue on culture and cliques, and library activities geared specifically for teens.
"We were incredibly lucky," White said.