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A Georgia Southern University transit bus exploded in flames Thursday after a "small electrical fire" sparked a larger blaze when it reached natural gas fuel tanks.
No one was injured, thanks to a quick-witted bus driver who evacuated the bus before the fire got out of hand, witnesses said.
"I was on the bus," said Esonia Webb, a GSU student. "I got on at the engineering building and kind of smelled smoke."
The driver called the bus garage and was heading to the Recreation Activity Center on campus to switch buses, but before she could get there, smoke came pouring out of the air conditioning vents, Webb said.
"She pulled over and told everyone to get off the bus," she said. "We had to push the doors open. The smoke got worse and the bottom of the bus was on fire."
Everyone decided at that point to get away from the bus. Within minutes, the flames reached the natural gas tanks and "it exploded," she said.
Statesboro Fire Commander Tim Grams said the bus had a safety feature common with natural gas fuel tanks. When the temperatures around the tank rose, a release valve vented and let the gas escape.
The resulting fireball sent thick billowing clouds of black smoke skyward, but had the tank not been vented, a true explosion would have taken place and fragments of the bus would have filled the air, he said.
The fireball caused by the natural gas igniting probably "looked pretty violent to people not used to seeing things like that," he said.
Statesboro firefighters were at the scene within four minutes of receiving the call, and controlled the blaze while allowing the natural gas to burn away.
Students and others around the campus heard the explosion and saw the pillars of smoke. Many went to investigate, as did Brittany Linares.
"I saw the black smoke and heard it go boom," she said. When she reached the scene, "I was so scared somebody was hurt. The first explosion was loud enough to get the attention of anybody at GSU who was outside."
Apparently the explosion also rattled nearby buildings.
Angel Johnson and Haley James were in class in the Education Building in a lab with their headphones on.
"We heard this really loud boom," James said. "The windows kind of shook. We took off our headphones and heard another really loud explosion. The windows went crazy."
McKenzie Smith, a junior from Atlanta, was driving behind the bus on her way to class when she saw it pull over. She said she could see smoke coming out of the vehicle.
"There were three explosions all together that I saw," she said. "After the first big explosion that's when a police officer came over to our cars and told us to park and run because they didn't know what was going to happen. I ran over to the Education (Building) lot and called my sister, found her and we watched the second two explosions. It went up into flames really quickly.
"As I was running, I could feel the heat. The explosion sounded like a bomb. You could feel it in your chest. It was like a firework went off very near to you."
All 14 buses used to transport students around campus will be fully inspected after Thursday's incident, said Kristi Bryant, GSU's Director of Parking and Transportation.
"We will inspect all the buses, but I believe this was an isolated and very unusual instance that caused the fire," she said. "The buses have a regular maintenance schedule and they are completely safe for students."
The electrical fire started "we believe, in the front end of the bus around the headlight area," Bryant said. "It quickly spread throughout the bus, engulfing the bus."
Only about 15 passengers were on board.
"I commend the driver for getting this bus to this location, out of the heavily populated area and getting everyone off safely," she said.
Holli Deal Bragg maybe reached at (912) 489-9414.
Executive editor James Healy contributed to this story.