The second engine-compartment fire in less than a week involving two Brownsville Independent School District buses manufactured by Navistar International Bus Company has ignited a nationwide investigation into the bus maker.
It has been reported that the Associated Press has launched a nationwide investigation into problems with the company's buses. (The operational word here is "reported," not announced.)
A week ago today, 29 Porter High School students were evacuated from bus No. 528 near 14th Street and the Expressway frontage road after a fire that began in the engine compartment completely gutted the bus, blowing out its windows and melting the entire front of the bus.
The quick action of bus driver Norma Medina in evacuating the students away from the fully-engulfed vehicle is credited with preventing injuries to the high schoolers.
And just this Wednesday, a fire that began in the engine compartment of a bus built by the same manufacturer forced a driver to stop in the middle of FM 802 and South Padre Island Highway, walk the Rivera High School students to a nearby McDonald's Restaurant. He then and then returned to the bus, doused the engine compartment with a fire extinguisher and saved the bus from being completely destroyed like the bus in Friday;'s incident.
The bus in the Friday fire was bus 528, manufactured by International in 2002, while the bus involved in Wednesday's fire was number 447, manufactured by International in 2005.
The local daily reported that the company's representatives will inspect 100 additional buses that are manufactured by International but are of a different make and model.
This is not the first time the manufacturer has run into problems with its buses. In 2011, The New York Times reported that Navistar was recalling 15,500 school buses over a fire risk.
"According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the popular buses were built with a positive alternator cable that could rub against a mounting bracket. Should the cable's insulation be compromised, the electrical system could malfunction, potentially resulting in a fire. The recall covers 2007-2012 model-year buses, including the BE and CE series. The report says that Navistar itself filed the recall and that so far, no fires have been reported from vehicles in the field."
And just this August, School Transportation News reported that the 22,264 of the company's IC Bus AE Series small school buses with model years 2013 and 2014 were recalled due to a foam-padding defect that could result in injury to children's knees.
"Nearly 21,000 of the affected buses are CE Series conventionals operating in the U.S, and nearly 2,500 more CE school buses are in Canada," the online publications stated.
And in 1992, the Seattle Times reported that "Navistar International Corp. yesterday broadened a recall to include 185,000 school buses that need modifications in their fuel systems. The company previously announced that the fuel systems would have to be modified on at least 24,000 school buses. Test indicated that the buses could leak excessive fuel during a crash, resulting in a fire. Further tests now show that the modification is needed on all 185,000 buses built since Sept. 1, 1978."
Just recently, the BISD board of trustees, on recommendation by the the BISD administration and the Transportation Department purchased 42 new regular buses and 18 special-needs buses manufactured by Thomas Built Buses Inc. The 60 new buses are part of a $6.4 million bus fleet upgrade. Another 12 buses were ordered this week, the district said.
But that is just a drop in the BISD bucket. BISD’s bus fleet has more than 300 buses which provide transportation to some 27,000 students, well over half of the district’s enrollment, according to media reports.
Earlier this year, trustee Jose Hector Chirinos was intransigent in not wanting to change bus manufacturers despite the BISD administration's recommendations that it purchase Thomas buses.
Chirinos – a former director of BISD Transportation – was adamant in trying to urge other trustees to purchase the International buses despite the fact that Thomas had been the lowest bidder and offered a better product to the district.
As a result, the upgrading of the BISD fleet was delayed for more than a month until he relented and the district moved ahead to purchase the Thomas buses. An audit conducted after Chirinos left the Transportation Department indicated that he had built up a bus parts and tire inventory for the BISD fleet and office supplies that had partially become obsolete and had to be discarded resulting in $100,000s in losses to the district.
District Transportation administrators say that the two drivers involved in the two recent bus mishaps took part in district-mandated drills that included emergency evacuations in case of fires in August before classes started.
Nonetheless, they say that the drivers in both incidents will be commended at the Nov. 5 school board meeting for not panicking and performing their duties to protect the students.