The Night the Bus Burned

(picture for illustration purposes only)

“It was a dark and stormy night…”  Well, not quite.  What was the last evening of a week of Neighborhood Bible Time, though, turned into a unique church bus story to top ALL church bus stories!

I’d been at Liberty Baptist in Pigeon Forge, TN as assistant to Pastor Robert Settle for about 9 months.  During that time, I’d faced a heavy personal struggle that I will share in another post.  There had been the challenging weekend (see “A Child Born to Die”) the previous December, and time was flying by as I busily worked with the choir, children’s church, and a church bus route.

The church had a nice, large house just across the parking lot with a full downstairs area that served as the church fellowship hall. The upstairs had 3 bedrooms and 2 baths, a spacious living room with wood stove, a dining room, a full kitchen, and an office.  For a single man it was a mansion!  Other than the master, one of the secondary bedrooms was totally empty, while the other was used for missionaries or evangelists passing through.

When I began serving there, I volunteered to take a bus route.  However, my bus driver quit mid-year, so not only did I have the responsibility of visiting each home of my riders on Saturdays, but I ended up driving the bus each Sunday.  Since my route was the longest of 5 routes, I recall getting home quite late each Sunday afternoon, perhaps around 2.

In many ways, that summer was a blur of challenges in ministry with my own travel in meetings and serving with another evangelist friend, as well as with directing a week of NBT at my then-home church in Pigeon Forge.  I remember the first meeting that summer was a revival at our former church, Tabernacle Baptist of Hickory, NC where Pastor Settle had once been a pastor.  He left there to serve at Liberty in Pigeon Forge, after having started Tabernacle Christian School.  It was there that I attended high school and graduated in 1982.  I vividly recall meeting my wife Heather that first week, whose mom dragged her up to me and said, “My daughter can play all the Bible Time songs!”  We ended up getting engaged during the 7th week of the summer when I was in a VBS at Carson Memorial Baptist in Kings Mountain, NC.  The only other weeks I recall were a week of revival with the Kistler family in Memphis, TN, and a VBS at a church in Prattville, AL (Anchor Baptist?) which was the week after NBT in TN.

 Carson Memorial Baptist (where we were engaged!)

It was more difficult than I’d realized to direct a program while away in other meetings, especially being gone the week before!  When I took the position there, Pastor Settle had given me freedom to travel in summer meetings.  However, I later learned that the deacons were thinking that I would be gone only a week or two.  When I was gone the entire summer, that became an issue.  Once again, another story for another blog post.

NBT Rally

I’m thinking that NBT was the week after the revival in Hickory where Phil Vos was pastor.  I returned to the usual busyness of making sure everything was going as planned.  I had scheduled someone to visit my route that summer, as well as having laid out plans for responsibilities such as music and junior church.  Brother Suttles, who is now the pastor, was a great help when I was gone!

Everything was going smoothly … until Friday.  The 5 routes consisting of 2 regular size buses, 1 van, and 2 small buses, all had their regular drivers … until Friday evening.  To this day, I do not know what happened that last night to leave only 2 drivers for all 5 routes!  The only reason that I can think of is that 3 of the drivers had work that weekend.  After all, Pigeon Forge is known for tourism and every weekend back then was extremely busy!  For whatever reason, I was not informed beforehand that 3 of 5 regular drivers would not be driving that night.  I found this out AFTER the Friday night awards program when the kids were heading to the buses!

I recall running around with my bull horn trying to “direct traffic” and make hurried decisions as to which riders should be on which of the two large buses.  I ended up having to take a bus with which I was unfamiliar, taking children who didn’t ride my bus, and a route that I didn’t know.  In all of the hubbub, I ran to the parsonage and grabbed a box of ice cream sandwiches to use for awards as the children got off of the bus.  A sweet lady who rode the bus on Sundays was my only helper.  While she knew the route I needed to take that night, she didn’t know how to “take charge” of a group of rowdy kids on a bus.

We left on an unfamiliar route with over 30 noisy children on a bus that was regularly used to take children to school.  After we left the church, heading in the opposite direction from my normal route, I was instructed to take a right just up Wears Valley Rd. past the gas station where the church had an account.  Not far down that road was a trailer park where we let off a child or two.  Then, I had to turn that large vehicle around in that park!  After leaving there, going back the way we’d come, I was told to turn left. As I did so, I saw that the road was a back mountain road headed up into one of those Tennessee “hollers” we knew so well.  A short distance up that road I needed to let off a child.  Then, Margaret told me that was all.

Uh oh.  Where could I turn this large bus around?  At that point, I thought that I would likely come across another turn off up the way.  I could then take the bus just past that road, then back into it and turn around that way.  Sure enough, such a road did exist!  My plan worked great, until…

That next road happened to be a steep decline down another Tennessee “holler.”  But when I backed down just enough to turn around, I accelerated to come back up the hill and head back the way we’d come.  However, the engine cut off, leaving us all sitting on the steep incline in an old stick shift bus with about 30 rambunctious kids and no power to the brakes or the steering!  What’s more, every so often the vehicle would shift under the weight due to the incline, as I kept my full weight on the brake with the emergency brake deployed.  I didn’t know what to do.  After a few unsuccessful tries to restart the engine, I looked down and saw that the gas hand was way below the empty mark!  A vehicle used twice daily to carry children during the school year was out of gas!  Not only was the regular driver absent that evening but he left it with no fuel!!

Thinking gasoline, I saw a house nearby and asked Margaret (my helper) to go and see if they had some.  She returned with bad news. They had none.  It was then that I made another mistake.  Not knowing the history of that bus, I tried one more time to start the engine.

What happened then struck a chill up my spine and doubtless in others who could see.  That last try was the “last straw” for an old church bus engine that I later learned from Bill the church mechanic that it had been known to backfire through the carburetor.  Well, that evening it did just that on that last attempt, and I could see from the driver’s seat when a flame popped up in the engine!!

Oh no!  What to do now?  Send the kids out the back door of the bus and they get run over by a huge lurching vehicle or have them exit the front door near where the engine compartment was burning?  I quickly decided to “stay with the ship” in the driver’s seat and commanded the children to exit the bus by me…as I watched the engine burn.  I had no idea if it would explode!

After all the children had exited the bus, I then left.  It was then that I remembered the fire extinguisher which was mounted just inside the entrance.  With the fire in the engine, no smoke was inside the bus.  I took it to the front, pulled the pin, and aimed it directly at the engine.  PSSSSSEWwwwww….  It petered out in just a few seconds!  This was a clear case of neglecting church bus maintenance!  All I could do at that point was make my way to the bottom of the hill where the children had gathered.

The rest of the evening was a blur.  Another church was having VBS the same week, and at some point, they stopped by with a loaded van to offer to return and take our kids back to church.  One of my girls was so affected by the situation that she had an asthma attack, even though there was no smoke in the cabin of the bus!  So, the paramedics were called!

Finally, the other area church did return with their van to take us all back to Liberty.  By the time we returned, Brother Suttle had returned from dropping off the kids he had that evening, so we then shared kids and I was able to take the kids from my route home.  I returned to the church from that trip to a burned-up bus, questions for a police report, and the need to finalize packing for a trip.

It was a very late night!  I was pooped, and I had to leave early the next morning for a VBS in Alabama! The NBT evangelists were packed and ready to leave the next morning for their next meeting.  Time for some shut eye.

I was extremely busy with both morning and evening rallies for children and teens at Anchor Baptist, and it wasn’t until the following Tuesday that I was able to call Pastor Settle.  In a word, he was upset about the bus incident.  He’d arrived at the church for Saturday morning bus visitation only to find a blackened bus and no information as to what had happened!  (This was the days before cell phones!)

For years after that harried night, he blamed me for taking that bus into the “hollers,” though I tried to explain that I didn’t know where the bus was headed that evening.  On more than one occasion, he asserted that I should have known not to take a large bus into those areas because announcements not to do so were made on a regular basis.  Maybe I never paid attention to those announcements because my bus was a short one and my route didn’t go into those areas.  Whatever the reason, I never remembered hearing those announcements.

The entire situation involved maintenance neglect of the buses coupled with the neglect of the other drivers to inform me of their absence that last night.  All told, it was one unforgettable night of the LORD’s protection and provision!


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