Niobrara responds to bus fire with speed and kindness


Courtesy photos from social media

LUSK - According to dispatch data, the first 911 call came in at 2136 on Saturday, October 14, from a bus driver south of Lusk on 85 reporting that the bus he was driving in the north bound lane full of college football players was on fire. Within minutes fire and EMS had been dispatched, the county emergency management director James Santistevan and Sheriff  Randy Starkey were notified and shortly after that around 9:45, the school district transportation director Kevin Gaukel was also called.

Putting the scenario together later, it appeared that a fire had started near the engine in the charter bus that was transporting the Rapid City School of Mines defense football team back from a game in Colorado. The cause was unknown as of press time. Just south of Lusk there was a popping sound and students noticed a situation. The driver immediately pulled over and called 911 as the bus was evacuated.

Emergency services in Lusk were immediately dispatched with fire and EMS response. All students and accompanying coaches and others were safely off the bus which by that time was completely engulfed in flames. The second bus carrying the other half of the team, managers, statisticians and others came to an abrupt halt behind them, having issues of its own. The heat wouldn’t work and condensation was building up on windows making it difficult for the driver to see.

As the phone call to the county clerk from emergency management went, “We have 140-some people that need to go to the fairgrounds for emergency shelter.” With over seventy people on each bus and cold temps the people needed to be sheltered for whatever the duration of their stay was going to be. Many were clothed in only light clothing including slip on shoes and shorts, definitely not appropriate to spend a 34 degree evening on the side of the road.

School district transportation director Kevin Gaukel responded to the call from emergency manager Santistevan around 9:45 requesting a school bus for transportation. Gaukel called his driver Tom Eiden, who was still awake, who immediately headed over to the bus barn to warm up a bus and head out. Then Gaukel received another call stating that the second bus was also having problems so he headed to town to see if he could help figure out what was going on.

Santistevan also activated a network including the public health response and turning the fair grounds auditorium into an emergency shelter for everyone involved in the incident.

Sheriff’s deputies Jim Frye and Dan Applegarth responded and assisted with directing traffic into a single-lane and securing the area for fire response.

As they worked to put the fire out fire fighters were also able to cut into both sides of the bus to ensure that no more fire was burning internally. Since ambulance services were not needed EMS returned to the barn and the school bus took the players and personnel to the gas station for snacks before dropping them off at the fairgrounds.

The second trip Gaukel rode along to take a look at the second bus. They loaded all of the equipment and belongings from the first bus that had been able to be salvaged and drove it into town. There, Gaukel was able to establish what was wrong with the bus and potentially provide a work around, however, by that time the charter company had already dispatched two more buses from Rapid City. The driver was able to drive it full of gear back to Rapid.

According to Sheriff Randy Starkey, “This incident ended in the best possible way with no injuries and every agency playing their part well. It proved that in an emergency, even one that doesn’t have such a great outcome, Niobrara county can come together and do what needs done.” Several parents of players have reached out to Starkey to express their appreciation for the generous and timely response provided by the school district and emergency services.

When Wyoming Highway Patrol appeared on scene they took over to investigate the incident and the county was released. The burned out bus was cleared up and towed away by afternoon on Sunday.

Sheriff Starkey also expressed his appreciation for the response of Gaukel and the school district. Gaukel took it all in stride and was just happy they were able to help out those student athletes.

School of mines stated that the situation is under investigation. Athletic director Joel Lueken said, “We definitely want to thank the greater Lusk community for helping out our football program and putting them up. Their emergency management crew was fantastic…We managed the situation and are ready to move on.”

Players pulled into Rapid City around 3 a.m. tired but safe.