NTSB Listens to Testimony in Bus Fire Hearing

The National Transportation Safety Board continues taking testimony today in Washington, in its investigation of the bus fire that killed 23 Houston area nursing home patients near Dallas last September. The NTSB hopes to find out why commercial buses don't have equipment and facilities for passengers with special needs, and consider making such accommodations mandatory. Terry Gildea reports from Capitol Hill.

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Investigators heard testimony from eyewitnesses on the fateful day of the fire. The coach-style bus left a Bellaire nursing home headed for a sister facility in Dallas. Aboard were more than 40 elderly residents hoping to avoid the potential wrath of Hurricane Rita. In the early morning hours of September 23rd, the bus caught fire. Drew Wood and Jason Saulsbury were on their way to work as electricians when they spotted the burning bus. Wood told government officials about his efforts to help rescue those trapped inside.

"One of us would go on the bus and another person would run on there- try to help somebody off. It didn't take long at all before it was engulfed with dark thick smoke you can't even catch your breath."

A locking rear wheel had generated enough friction to set the tire ablaze. Several oxygen tanks then exploded, trapping the 23 people killed. Jason Saulsbury told the panel he did everything he could until the explosion.

"At the time I guess I didn't really think about personal risk. But yeah it was pretty intense."

Bob Capstick, a senior technical adviser for Motor Coach Industries, investigated the crash site near Wilmer. He told the panel once the rear tire of the coach caught on fire, it was almost impossible to put out.

"Some of those pieces of rubber came in contact with this super heated metal thus causing the ignition."

NTSB board members then began hearing testimony from experts on the risk of bus fires. Martha Ahrens with the National Fire Protection Association says the laws to report bus fires are not consistent.

"The states actually set the reporting policies. Some states have mandatory reporting of all incidents some mandatory for all fires and some have completely voluntary reporting."

The second day of the hearing will focus the difficulties of evacuating people with special needs. Also, the board will examine the record of Global Limos, the company that owned the bus. Their operation was shut down after the fire. The NTSB is expected to issue a final report in the next six months. For Houston Public Radio, I'm Terry Gildea in Washington.