SURRY Co., Va. - A Surry County bus driver is being honored for safely evacuating her students during a bus fire on the way to school.
According to Surry County Schools Superintendent Serbrenia Sims, on Thursday, March 24, at around 7:30 a.m., bus driver Sondra Artis finished her pickup of students and headed to school. While she was driving, she noticed something was wrong and pulled over into a church parking lot.
When Artis realized the bus was on fire, she assisted students out of the front and back doors, with high school students helping the younger students exit safely. All 20 students on board the bus were able to evacuate the way they learned during routine bus evacuation drills.
"I just had to get them off that bus. That’s what I was determined to do because when I saw that smoke and then with the smell," Artis said. "As I got close to Highway 31, I started to smell something, so one of my little boys came to me and said, 'Ms. Artis, are you OK?' I guess I had a look on my face," Artis said.
She didn’t want to alarm her students and kept calm.
"I wiped the window and I said, 'Is that steam or smoke?' I didn’t say it where he could hear me. As I went to turn out on 31 and pressed on the gas, more came out. The scent was so powerful," Artis tells News 3 reporter Leondra Head.
According to Sims, Artis then went through the bus to ensure all students had evacuated.
Her students then evacuated the bus.
"I told the kids that, ‘You know, we practice in the beginning of the year, but this is going to be real, so I need you to be calm," Artis said.
One student on the bus says he’s glad everyone got out safely.
"My heart was just racing, and I was trying to worry about getting off the bus," Brandan Diggs, a student at Luther Porter Jackson Middle School, said.
The students are thankful for Artis.
"Our bus driver, she helped us and she’s a very good bus driver. We all love her. She deserves a reward. If it wasn’t for her, a lot of stuff could have went down that day," Diggs and his siblings said.
A second bus nearby was able to take the students to school. Sims said that as the second bus pulled away, Artis noticed her students giving her a thumbs up — the same gesture she gives them after successful bus drills.
One parent says she rushed from work to get to her daughter
"Very scary. I felt like I was having a panic attack; [I] couldn’t breathe. I just wanted to get to my daughter. Thank God for Ms. Artis and the man above... thank you, Lord," Della Clayton said.
Artis says her faith kept her strong through it all.
"On the way back, I looked over at that church, and all I could say was, 'Thank you, Jesus.' All my babies are safe, but my big baby - my bus - is gone."
According to Sims, Artis lost personal items in the bus fire, including her late mother's blanket and sweater that she carried with her daily.
"I just lost my mom - Lord bless her. Her favorite blanket and favorite sweater, I had that on the bus with me. I have two great nephews. When they get on the bus at 6:45 in the morning, it’s cold. They would ask, ‘Can I have Big Mama's blanket or Big Mama’s sweater?' and I would let them wrap up in it," Artis tells said. "It didn’t dawn on me until they sent me the picture of the bus on flames, and I was like, 'I didn’t get to go back and get my mama’s blanket or sweater,' and then that kind of got to me."