47 escape bus blaze near city
By Brad Bennett

A fire on a chartered bus Tuesday morning may have destroyed the vehicle, but it didn't burn out passengers' desire to get to their destination.

Friction from a flat tire caused the bus to catch fire between Athens and Browns-boro. All passengers were able to safely escape the fire, although three were treated and released for smoke inhalation.

The Motorcoach charter, owned by Clark Tours, originated in Terrell and was bound for Harrah's Lou-isiana Downs Racetrack in Bossier City, La., Tuesday with 46 passengers and one driver. Occupants said after the bus caught fire around 9 a.m. the evacuation was hurried, but orderly.

Trooper Brent Davis, who is handling the case, said the driver, Roger Pearson of Belton, pulled the bus to a stop 2.5 miles east of Murchison after one of the tires went flat. Upon seeing flames, he evacuated the passengers.

"He (the driver) did all he could do," Davis said. "It could have been real bad ... the bus is a total loss."

He said there is no need for a follow-up investigation and no citations were issued.

The wheel that caused the fire was the driver's side rear wheel on the last of three axles.

Passengers were taken to the Best Western Inn in Athens aboard two Browns-boro ISD school buses. After staying there a few hours, the crowd was getting restless -- not to get back to their homes near Waco, but to the slot machines and sports book in Louisiana.

Within an hour of waiting, an anxious group began to quietly campaign for the journey to continue on when a new bus from the travel company arrived from Terrell.

Not even a fire strong enough to destroy a chartered bus was stopping these fun seekers.

"Hey, all right!," exclaimed passenger George Mortel after finding out the group would continue on.

Mortel, the only passenger from Henderson County, could have easily made his way back to his car in Athens and taken the rest of the day off.

But instead he wanted to let his wife know he was fine and then get to the track.

"That was my first bus trip to (the casinos)," he said.

Allen Moriels said Tues-day's excursion was a weekly event .

"I have been riding a long time. Since I retired, it is something I do pretty regularly," said Moriels. "It is just something to do on a Tuesday.

The delay was just a way for Moriels to hold onto his money for a little longer, he said.

Three people were sent to the hospital, but returned before the new bus left.

"I feel fine. I just inhaled a lot of smoke," said Alex Guerra, one of those treated and released from East Texas Medical Center Athens.

Guerra, along with his wife and the two others who were treated, decided not to keep pushing on Tuesday. They said they didn't want to push their luck -- looking wearily at the new bus, a 2003 Motorcoach identical to the one they left a smoldering shell .

The four who turned back waited with the bus driver for another bus to arrive from Clark Tours, the company that arranged the day trip for the crowd of mostly senior citizens from near Waco and Terrell.

Pearson was praised by passengers for pulling over to check the tire.

"Another two minutes, the way it was going, and it was going to be bad news," Mortel said.

The 2003 bus was a new model and the driver, Pearson said he had been driving since 1971.

He said he has seen tires catch fire before, but on those occasions the flames could be quashed with a fire extinguisher. Pearson said an extinguisher was on board but by the time everyone was evacuated, the fire was beyond the capabilities of a hand-held extinguisher.

Many passengers said they could smell burning rubber before hearing the pop of one of the tires.

Moriels said the smoke was pretty bad at the tail end of the evacuation, but he didn't see flames until shortly after everyone was safely off the bus.

He said the accident will not deter him from continuing the weekly pilgrimage to Louisiana fun.

"Things happen," he said, shrugging off the fire.

Fred Hernandez, general manager for Clark Tours, said flat tires are not uncommon but blowouts are a rare event on new model busses.

"We are just happy everyone got off the bus with nobody hurt," Hernandez said.

He said Clark has been organizing tours since 1984 and this is the first fire on a bus.