It was a normal morning in March, and school bus driver Sondra Artis had just picked up the last student on her route.
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As she headed towards Surry County Schools in Virginia, the driver noticed a pungent burning odor in the air. Frowning, Sondra wiped at the windshield to see if it was fogging up from condensation, or if it was smoke. When a student asked her what was wrong, she did her best to hide her growing worry.
“I wiped the window and I said, ‘Is that steam or smoke?’ I didn’t say it where he could hear me,” Sondra recalled. “As I went to turn out on 31 and pressed on the gas, more came out. The scent was so powerful. I just had to get them off that bus. That’s what I was determined to do because when I saw that smoke and then with the smell.”
Sondra pulled into a church parking lot and turned to face the 20 students on board. She reminded them of the evacuation drills they perform at the beginning of the year and directed older students to leave via the backdoor and younger students through the front.
“I told the kids that, ‘You know, we practice in the beginning of the year, but this is going to be real, so I need you to be calm,'” said Sondra.
The students hastened to the exits as smoke began to fill the bus. They were scared, but Sondra remained calm throughout the evacuation. When they were out, she went back onto the bus to make sure everyone escaped safely.
“My heart was just racing, and I was trying to worry about getting off the bus,” student Brandan Diggs remembers.
Seconds after they all disembarked, the bus caught fire and quickly became engulfed.
Another bus came to the scene to take the children to school, and Sondra was left thanking her lucky stars that everything worked out okay.
“On the way back, I looked over at that church, and all I could say was, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ All my babies are safe, but my big baby — my bus — is gone,” she said.
The bus can be replaced, but human life cannot. The parents of Sondra’s students were incredibly grateful for her grace under (literal!) fire. She’s being hailed a hero, and many of her students would like to see her rewarded for her heroism.
“Our bus driver, she helped us and she’s a very good bus driver,’ said Brandan. “We all love her. She deserves a reward. If it wasn’t for her, a lot of stuff could have went down that day.”
Sondra has been driving a bus for more than 19 years, and she’d never had to use her evacuation training until this day. Thank goodness she was able to keep her cool and get her students out safely in the nick of time.
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