Passers-by help rescue students from blaze
By Joe Callahan, Star-Banner
Chris Mann heard the fire crackling as he entered the burning school bus, knowing injured children were inside.HIs shirt bloody, James Horton talks about rushing to drag children to safety from a burning bus.As Mann climbed aboard mangled bus No. 9601, which had just been slammed by an 18-wheeler, he was met by children’s screams.He fought through the thick smoke, trying to get to a child trapped in the back. She was lodged in the crushed seats; he couldn’t get her out.
Then, the bus was rocked by exploding tires. As the blaze grew, Mann turned his attention to saving others.In all, 21 students were on board the bus that had stopped and, by all accounts, had its flashers on and the bus arm activated.Like a missile, an 18-wheeler slammed the rear of the bus without stopping, pushing it 275 feet.
Mann, of Palatka, who initially didn’t want to discuss the horrifying ordeal, finally talked about the rescue.
He and three other men – two elevator installers from Palatka, a local man rocked from his couch and a wholesale tire delivery man – all stopped to help save children.
“The Lord put us all there for that reason – to save those children,” said James Horton, 45, who witnessed the crash as he drove north on U.S. 301.
He locked the brakes on his Barron’s Wholesale Tire box truck. He thought about his children – ages 17, 14 and 11 – and ran to the bus.
“All I could think about was my children, and they all ride buses,” said Horton, of Jacksonville.
John Bishop, 45, was driving his pickup truck north, with Mann sitting in the driver’s seat. He saw the school bus was stopped and its lights were flashing.
Mann noticed the school bus arm went out, and he noticed the 18-wheeler barreling in from behind. Bishop realized the semi wasn’t stopping.
“It sounded like a bomb went off,” Bishop said. “It was something I don’t want to ever see again.”
Bishop and Mann, both installers for Mowrey Elevators, knew they had to act and act fast. Bishop, the pickup driver, quickly got into a northbound turn lane.
They pulled across the southbound lane and stopped to block traffic. They ran to the bus, meeting Horton. They all quickly began pulling children from the inferno.
Matt Eckenrode, 25, was sitting on his living room couch watching television when an explosion shook his home, nearly knocking him to the floor.
Knowing something terrible had happened, he looked out from his window and watched the wreckage being pushed down U.S. 301.
“I got my shoes on and when I got to the door, I could hear the children screaming,” he said. “I just ran up there to see if I could help them.”
Eckenrode lives on the dirt Northeast 155th Street Road, just a few blocks from where the children catch the bus.
“I helped pull out the girl who lives just down the road,” he said. “All I could hear was the screaming. I wanted to do what I could to help them.”
For Mann, it still bothers him that they left one child behind, even though he knows they saved many others.
“The kid was lodged and I just couldn’t get her out,” he said. “There was nothing I could do.”