Ron Kitts knows the kids on his Puyallup school bus well.
“I see them every day, twice a day,” he said Tuesday.
And when their bus burst into flames on the way to school Monday, that relationship helped them work together to get to safety.
“It was so scary,” he said. “And it happened fast.”
Kitts, 61, has been a driver in the Puyallup School District for about six years. He has been driving special needs students to Shaw Road Elementary and Spinning Elementary schools for about six months.
Monday, he dropped off his junior high kids without any trouble, then picked up eight elementary school students.
Just after getting the last student on his route, Kitts noticed something wrong with the bus about 9 a.m. near the 6700 block of 84th Street East.
“The bus started acting a little bit funny,” he said. “I thought I had left my emergency brake on or something.”
But he hadn’t.
Then he saw what looked like steam outside. When it started coming into the bus, he realized it was smoke.
He stopped the bus, opened the door and saw flames around the right front wheel.
“My gut reaction was to get rid of the danger,” Kitts said.
He grabbed the fire extinguisher behind his seat, got out and emptied the extinguisher in about 10 seconds. But flames were still burning in the engine compartment.
That’s when he knew he needed to get the kids out.
From the time he noticed smoke to when everyone was off the bus took less than three minutes, he said.
Except for a fourth-grader and a third-grader, all the kids were 6-year-olds.
They were a bit panicky when he told them they had to leave right away, Kitts said, but immediately got up and followed instructions.
“They did extremely good,” he said.
School district spokesman Brian Fox declined to reach out to the students’ families on behalf of reporters, when asked.
Kitts enlisted the oldest student, a 10-year-old boy, to help the others out the back door, like the kids had practiced during emergency drills.
The boy rose to the occasion, giving the other students a hand as they left the bus.
Three students weren’t physically able to leave on their own.
Other drivers pulled over to help. Kitts got the three remaining students out of their seat belts one by one, and handed them to other adults out of the back of the bus.
Central Pierce Fire & Rescue arrived to put out the flames.
“The bus driver did a great job getting pulled over and getting the students out in a really fast manner,” fire spokesman Guy Overby said.
Investigators are working to determine what caused the blaze.
Once safe, the kids were still rattled.
“The little girls were screaming,” Kitts said. “They were all very scared.”
He had a rush of adrenaline and anxiety too, and said his knees and hands were shaking.
The adults took the kids up a steep driveway behind the bus, a safe distance from the fire, and the students formed a little circle.
Kitts worked to calm them, by saying: “We’re OK. We’re all safe. We’re all out.”
A second bus arrived for him to drive the kids to school.
One of the hardest parts of the day, he said, was that a couple of them were scared to go.
“I had to pick them up, hug them,” he said.
Hours later, it was time for Kitts to take the kids home from school.
“They were pretty amped up,” he said. “I sure can’t blame them.”
Having a familiar face seemed to help.
“I think they were glad to see that I was with them,” Kitts said. “That everything was OK.”
As he dropped off the students, parents asked him about the fire, and thanked him for keeping their kids safe.
“It was kind of emotional,” he said.
As he described the rescue to reporters the next day, Kitts wore a T-shirt with the words: “No bad days.”
And the Tuesday morning route was no exception.
With a big smile, he said: “It was good.”