A quick-thinking bus driver helped 54 Indiana children and their chaperones avoid injury Wednesday when their bus caught fire on the Tri-State Tollway in Deerfield.
Two busloads of children from Dyer, Ind., were on a field trip to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee when the bus driver heard a “pop” near I-94’s Deerfield Road exit around noon, authorities said.
The driver realized the sound was a blown tire and exited the tollway at the Deerfield ramp, according to Sgt. Sara Balmes of the Lake County Sheriff’s office.
Walter Lay, the driver, pulled onto Deerfield Road just east of I-94, where the children were evacuated and taken to shelter out of the rain. No one was hurt.
“The blowout caused a mechanical problem, which caused a fire,” said Ray Larson, deputy chief of the Deerfield Bannockburn Fire Protection District. “The fire spread into the cabin of the bus.”
Everyone was off the bus before smoke entered the passenger section, according to Larson.
“The operator of the bus deserves all the credit for keeping the students and staff safe,” he said. “His awareness and quick thinking to get the bus off the highway and evacuate the occupants in a residential area rather than the tollway was the best thing he could do.”
The children stayed at nearby St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church until a second bus arrived and took them to Great America.
“When the other driver dropped (the other passengers) off at Great America, he came back and got the ones at the church,” Larson said.
Kahler Middle School Principal Ken Newton said he was kept apprised of the situation.
“I received a call from a bystander, and they said the students and chaperones were calm and acted accordingly before the fire,” he said.