Bus driver Kevin McKay gave the shirt off his back as he drove students to safety
An Irish American bus driver is being hailed as a hero after he transported a bus full of schoolchildren away from hazardous wildfires in Paradise, California.
41-year-old Kevin McKay told CNN that he had only been on the job as a school bus driver for a few months before wildfires began to threaten the Paradise, California school district he’s been working in.
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McKay said he had witnessed wildfires before, but the now fatal Camp Fire was unlike anything he’d ever seen.
“The fact that it was coming down in 1,000 places, it was unheard of," said McKay.
On the morning of November 8th, evacuations came down for Ponderosa Elementary, only shortly after students and faculty began to notice the fires and smoke nearby.
Bus driver McKay told The Mercury News: “I was at Ponderosa Elementary and at that time I had an empty bus because I had just unloaded.”
“It was fairly chaotic," he said. "Lots of the parents had come. Not one bus driver veered from the mandatory evacuation plan. Everybody did exactly what they were asked to do.”
While many families had come to pick their children up from the elementary school, some parents became stuck in traffic and weren’t able to, leaving many students stranded.
“Well, it was just time to go,” said McKay recalling the events. He loaded up his school bus with 22 students, kindergarten teacher Abbie Davis, and second-grade teacher Mary Ludwig.
One fourth-grader, Charlotte Merz, recalled: "It was so crazy, and there were fires left and right, everywhere you looked.”
As they left the school, the bus became snarled in gridlock traffic as the nearby fires raged on and the skies grew dark. McKay began to wonder whether or not he and his passengers should abandon the bus and head out on foot, though it ultimately never came to that.
McKay, Ludwig, and Davis began to make emergency plans: review emergency exits, pair off younger children with older ones, collect contact phone numbers, review the first aid kit and fire extinguisher.
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When students began to complain of fatigue and doze off due to the smoke, McKay took the shirt off of his back, tore it into pieces, and had the teachers distribute damp pieces to students to use as filters over their faces.
"That seemed to help," McKay said.
After an exhausting hours long journey, McKay and his bus finally reached their destination at Briggs Elementary.
McKay said Davis' husband hugged him so hard, that he "damned near lifted me off the ground."
Teacher Mary Ludwig said, “We had a bus driver from heaven.”
Davis and McKay both lost their homes to the fires which have now claimed 77 lives and left 1,000 people are unaccounted for. As of November 18, the fire, which is 65% contained, has scorched 150,000 acres.