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Charlotte bus fire is similar to York's

A York school bus the same make and model as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bus that caught fire Wednesday went up in flames last year.

The bus was in line at Hickory Grove-Sharon Elementary waiting for school to be dismissed, when the driver noticed a leak, York schools Transportation Director Richard Podmore said. The driver returned the bus to the lot and got a new vehicle.

The parked bus started smoking.

"By the time the fire department got there," Podmore said, "it was engulfed in flames."

The bus was a Freightliner FS-65 with a Thomas Built Buses body.

York schools still have six buses of that type, but haven't had problems with them. Rock Hill has three FS-65 buses that have never had a problem, Associate Superintendent Luanne Kokolis said.

Fort Mill schools have three similar model buses but haven't had any problems, Director of Pupil Services Tommy Schmolze said.

Clover schools don't have any buses of that make and model, spokesman Mychal Frost said.

Seemingly spontaneous fires involving the buses have raised questions in other parts of the Carolinas in recent years. Television station WNCT in Greenville, N.C., investigated last year after a Thomas Built bus fire there. The station found that between 2010 and 2011, at least four of the five school buses that caught fire around the state were FS-65 buses.

The York bus fire was sparked by a loose battery line, Podmore said. The Charlotte school bus started smoking, then caught fire apparently because of a problem with a motor for a fan heater, officials told the Charlotte Observer.

Thomas Built, a Freightliner subsidiary with a plant in High Point, N.C., did not respond to specific questions, but offered a statement:

"Thomas Built Buses designs and manufactures school buses with numerous, proven safety features, and views the safety of school bus passengers and drivers as its highest priority. Company officials have contacted the Charlotte Mecklenburg school district and are working closely with the district to determine the cause of the incident. Further information will not be available until the conclusion of the investigation."

South Carolina is the only state that owns and maintains its schools' buses. Local districts have no power to replace buses, and only state mechanics are allowed to fix them. Most districts have their own small fleets of activity buses, which transport students to various events.

Of the state's 5,631 school buses, 470 are the FS-65 model, according to S.C. Transportation Director Tim Camp.

The state doesn't have a record of any other fire involving the FS-65, and there are no plans to take any buses out of service.

"We are always concerned for safety," Camp said. "Our inspection program has not identified any specific defect that would cause us concern for all units."

Buses undergo routine inspections throughout the year, officials said.

Drivers check the vehicles during the week. Certified inspectors take a comprehensive look at them every six weeks.

Local officials said they haven't heard from transportation staff at the education department since the Charlotte bus fire. After the York fire in May, the state sent inspectors to evaluate buses, Podmore said.

Bus drivers are trained in how to react in emergencies.

The Charlotte bus driver, Lindora Richardson, moved the six students onboard the bus Wednesday to safety, lowering some out the back door. School leaders hailed her as a hero.

Drivers are key, Schmolze said.

"It's a tough, tough job," he said. "If you watch how she (the driver) reacted, that's the training."