A “bus driver from Heaven” is being hailed as a hero after driving nearly two dozen children to safety as the flames of California’s deadly “Camp Fire” approached.
As flames closed in on Ponderosa Elementary School, 41-year-old Kevin McKay ran into the building and ordered everyone to evacuate, CNN reported.
"It was time to go," he said. "Safety is such an important part of a bus driver's role."
But as the children were loaded onto the bus and driven out toward safety, they became stuck in gridlock on the roads. With flames quickly encroaching, McKay and the teachers questioned whether they should abandon the bus and proceed on foot — but the fire was too intense.
Mary Ludwig, a second-grade teacher who evacuated with McKay and the students, called the situation “very scary.”
“The sky was really menacing,” she said. “It felt like Armageddon ... It just kind of looked like we'd be headed into Mordor," McKay recalled, referring to the realm of the evil lord Sauron in "The Lord the Rings" books and films.
As the smoke intensified, Davis and Ludwig walked the bus aisle, comforting students. They came up with an emergency plan: Pair little kids with the big kids. Take roll. Get phone numbers. Review how to operate the emergency exits, first aid kit and the fire extinguisher. Due to smoke inhalation, several children began to become drowsy. Without hesitating, McKay tore his shirt into rags, doused them with water and handed them to the children to help protect their lungs from the smoke.
Fourth-grader Charlotte Merz, 10, recalled going to her “happy place” to avoid panicking.
“It was so crazy, and there were fires left and right everywhere you looked,” she said.
Around the bus, collisions ensued as motorists became increasingly disoriented. While driving to safety, the group spotted a woman on the side of the road, clearly terrified. McKay offered to give her a ride. The woman revealed she was also a school teacher whose car had broken down as she attempted to flee the flames.
Ludwig recalled to CNN how the woman kept saying was convinced she was going to die, and that the pair prayed together as they continued on down the road to safety.
After a harrowing drive, the bus made it safely out of the danger zone, and the children — all unharmed — were reunited with their parents.
“We had the bus driver from Heaven,” Ludwig said.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, two fires that both began on Nov. 8 have collectively burned almost 250,000 acres. With 76 confirmed deaths, and an estimated 1,300 people still missing, the wildfire is the deadliest fire in the state’s history. As of Monday afternoon, the “Camp Fire” is 60 percent contained.
While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Pacific Gas & Electric admitted two of its power lines failed in areas where the fire broke out a short time before the first flames were reported, the San Fransisco Gate reported.
On Sunday night, the town of Paradise held a vigil at First Christian Church in Chico to remember victims of the inferno. Attendees took time to reflect, pray, bring photos or momentos of lost friends, family and pets. Some sought help from counselors and mental health experts.
People hugged and shed tears as Pastor Jesse Kearns recited a prayer for first responders: "We ask for continued strength as they are growing weary right now."