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Saturday, September 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bus fire kills 2 dozen evacuees

The Washington Post

HOUSTON — By the time the first officers arrived, it was too late.

The initial 911 call had been about a bus emitting flames, but those flames quickly became an inferno that consumed at least 24 elderly people who were being evacuated from their nursing home as this city prepared for Hurricane Rita.

Trapped by their infirmities and surrounded by flames, the residents of a facility called Brighton Gardens cried out for help in their broken-down bus on Interstate 45 near Dallas, but rescuers could not reach them. Three Dallas County deputy sheriffs and a local police officer could not get past the second-level step of the bus when they arrived at 6:09 a.m.

"One deputy felt the blast furnace of flames and smelled the black acrid smoke and he could hear them. He shined his flashlight in and said 'please come forward to the light. I can't get to you,' " Dallas County Sheriff's Department spokesman Don Peritz said. "Then there was a number of small explosions and he was forced to come back off the bus."

Fred Witte, 74, said he heard three explosions from his property about 150 yards away.

"I was right there at the corner, and I felt the pressure," he said of the first blast.

Authorities said they think the explosions occurred when some of the residents' oxygen tanks ignited.

The Brighton Gardens residents were the first of Rita's victims, dying 24 hours before the hurricane was to make landfall. They were among 39 residents on the bus; the 15 others were taken to Dallas hospitals. The bus driver and six nursing-home employees aboard survived.

Brighton Gardens is a 140-bed assisted-living and skilled-nursing facility in Bellaire, a Houston suburb. It is owned by Sunrise Senior Living, of McLean, Va.

"Sunrise has been devastated by this tragedy," said Paul Klassen, company chairman and chief executive officer. "Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the residents involved in this unfortunate incident. Our primary concern is for the safety of our residents, and we are shocked and saddened that this event occurred during our evacuation."

Brighton Gardens administrators had begun the evacuation Thursday.

Families picked up most of the residents, but two busloads of residents and staff members were dispatched to sister facilities in Dallas. One bus arrived safely early yesterday morning. The second bus, which left Thursday night, broke down on I-45, about 20 miles south of Dallas. The driver managed to pull the vehicle onto the shoulder of the northbound lanes, to free up a lane surrounded by a sea of vehicles carrying evacuees out of Houston for as far as the eye could see.

Callers to 911 reported seeing flames coming out of the rear of the bus.

"There was heavy smoke and a lot of confusion and very elderly persons laying on the roadway — 80s, mid-80s, 90s," Peritz said.

By the time the flames were extinguished, the bus was a charred shell, the victims virtually destroyed.

"The majority of the bus melted," Peritz said. "In my 25 years here, I have never seen anything like this — of this magnitude of victims — short of an aircraft accident."

The National Transportation Safety Board, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Dallas County Sheriff's Office are investigating.

Authorities were questioning the bus driver, employed by the charter-bus company Global Limo, of Pharr, Texas. Officials were trying to determine who was on the bus that burned because investigators had received only one manifest of residents' and staff members' names for the two buses that left Brighton Gardens.

Because of the intense fire, the Dallas County medical examiner's office said some remains may have to be identified by matching DNA samples.

While authorities usually investigate the wreckage of such crashes at the scene, they moved the charred bus to a warehouse to free up the evacuation route.

Some Brighton Gardens residents were being evacuated — and fleeing a hurricane — for the second time in less than a month, Sunrise spokesman Jamison Gosselin said. But he said he did not know if any of them were on the bus that caught fire yesterday.

"We feel at this point that we did the best we could, and this was just a devastating and unfortunate tragedy that we never thought would have happened," Gosselin said.

The journey of the twice-evacuated seniors began Aug. 29, when 51 residents of the Sunrise at Bayou St. John facility in New Orleans boarded two buses.

The buses took them to Emerald Hills Golf Resort, far inland in west-central Louisiana. They stayed at the resort for five nights, then headed in the two buses toward Houston, where they would be relocated at other Sunrise facilities, including Brighton Gardens.

Washington Post reporter Bill Brubaker contributed to this report; Witte's comments were reported by The Associated Press.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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