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Twenty-five years ago, 15-year-old Quinton Higgins spent about a month in Kosair Children’s Hospital after suffering lung damage and second- and third-degree burns in the fiery bus crash.
Today, Higgins drives a Hardin County Schools bus.
The differences between the bus he drives every school day and the repurposed 1977 Ford B-700 school bus he was in that night in 1988 are like “night and day,” Higgins said.
“It’s just a totally different bus today,” he said.
The bus Radcliff First Assembly of God purchased from Meade County Schools was manufactured without a fuel-tank guard. It ran on gasoline and featured two exits – one in front and one in back.
In March 1989, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report citing alcohol impairment as the probable cause of the wreck.
However, contributing to the severity was “puncture of the bus fuel tank and ensuing fire in the bus, partial blockage by the rear bench seats of the area leading to the rear emergency door, which impeded rapid passenger egress and the flammability of the materials in the bus seat cushions,” NTSB investigators said.
Included in the report were recommendations to reduce the flammability of buses and improve fuel systems and access to emergency exits.
John Skaggs, HCS director of transportation, said the biggest difference between modern school buses and the 1977 B-700 is the fuel type.
Today, school buses are fueled by diesel as opposed to gasoline, Skaggs said. According to Kentucky’s 2013 school bus specifications, “diesel fuel” should be painted in 1-inch black lettering near the fuel access cover.
Furthermore, all fuel tanks are protected and built into the frame of the bus, he said.
Sharon Rengers, a registered nurse at Kosair Children’s Hospital and representative of Safe Kids Louisville, said bus seats have changed significantly since the crash and now are composed of flame-retardant materials.
“A Kentucky bus will not burn,” Rengers wrote in an email. “If there happens to be a car under the bus, the bus will not burn, but the seats will probably melt without the toxic fumes that killed so many kids on that day.”
Another major obstacle during the crash, Skaggs said, was the availability of exits. The front exit was blocked, meaning passengers only had access to the rear emergency door.
In addition to front and rear exits, Skaggs said passengers on HCS buses have access to a side door, four push-out windows and two roof hatches that can be used if the bus is on its side.
“If anything happens, there’s a way off the bus,” he said.
John Wright, spokesman for Hardin County Schools, said there is a 25-inch staging area around the side door and a 36-inch clearing around the rear exit.
According to Wright and Rengers, Kentucky bus specifications are among the most stringent in the United States.
“Kentucky now has one of the safest school buses in the country,” Rengers said. “Whether you are in Pikeville, Paducah or Louisville, they are all the same.”
By Kentucky law, students participate in four emergency bus evacuations each year, Skaggs said. The district’s transportation department also has a safety team that visits schools to discuss bus safety with students.
Higgins, who has been a bus driver for three years, is a member of the safety team. When he visits with students, one of the topics he addresses is the bus crash.
Higgins asks students to stand up on a school bus, close their eyes and lean on one another. He said the exercise emulates the difficulties the bus crash victims experienced trying to escape the flames, he said.
“We couldn’t see how to get off the bus,” Higgins said.
Bus driving was never part of Higgins’ plan, he said. He was unemployed and a woman at his church suggested he try it because he enjoyed working with kids, Higgins explained.
Higgins told the woman “no” three times before finally applying for the job, he said.
A few months after he started driving buses, Higgins was transporting a group of students back from a soccer game, he said.
It was night and he was driving along a curvy stretch of road when memories of the crash on Interstate 71 surfaced, he said.
When they stopped for dinner, Higgins took the opportunity to ask for help, he said.
“I called a friend and I told him what I was doing,” Higgins said. “He talked me through it.”
Higgins and his passengers made it home safely that night, and he continues to drive school buses because of his passion for working with kids, he said.
“I fell in love with it,” Higgins said, “but I wasn’t planning on it.”
Sarah Bennett can be reached at (270) 505-1750 or firstname.lastname@example.org.