On March 20, 54 students left Panama City Beach, Fla. exhausted from a week of carefree play on the beaches and in the bars of the Sunshine State.
Their rest ended abruptly when their tour bus apparently suffered from mechanical failure and became engulfed in flames.
The bus, one of three carrying Geneseo students from Panama City on a tour coordinated by Canada-based Breakaway Tours, pulled over on the side of Interstate 77 in North Carolina just before midnight on Saturday.
"All of a sudden there was a very loud bang sound and the bus shook until the bus driver was able to stop on the side of the road," recalled junior Carly O'Keefe. Senior Megan McCormick, who was also on the bus, said, "It sounded like a really loud gunshot." Several passengers said that they initially thought that a tire had blown. "The stench of the burning rubber was tremendously disgusting, it was overwhelming," McCormick said.
Thick smoke started to accumulate, and the 54 students on board started to file out the front door when it became obvious that a fire had started toward the rear of the bus. "We saw flames coming from the tire" said senior Juliette Kopp.
Panic struck and students started opening the side windows of the bus, which were an estimated 8-10 feet above the pavement, to escape the bus more quickly. "We didn't have time to grab anything," Kopp said. "I lost my shoes in the fall - I literally just ran."
"We ran as far away as we could," said senior Cait Mihalic. Though many tried to put distance between themselves and the bus out of fear that the gas tank might explode, the bus driver and several male students were able to remove almost all of the luggage from the undercarriage of the bus. Though many students lost their carry-on belongings, no one was seriously injured.
Police officers began to arrive on the scene within 10 minutes of the fire's start, and firefighters and emergency medical technicians were quick to follow. Students recalled that several passing cars slowed down and even took pictures of the burning bus without offering any assistance.
"The scene was crazy once all the fire engines, police cars and ambulances got there," O'Keefe said. "Once put out, there was basically a frame left of the bus … at some point we knew everything [on the bus] was gone … there was nothing that we could do about it."
Frank Ardaiolo, vice president of Student Life for Winthrop University, was traveling southbound on I-77 from an alternative spring break in New York City with several Winthrop students shortly after the bus caught fire.
"As I went past, I thought I saw a funny glow," he said, recalling that he then saw a bigger flash which he recognized as a fire. He helped to keep students in order and was one of the first to notify Geneseo's University Police department of the situation.
Scott Kenney, interim chief of UP at Geneseo, said he received two phone calls around 1:20 a.m., about an hour and a half after students said the bus pulled over on the side of the road. He notified Celia Easton, dean of Residence Life, who was serving as a stand-in for Dean of Students Leonard Sancilio.
In the meantime, the students waited until a second bus eventually arrived, but it soon too had problems - it became filled with exhaust smoke that caused the passengers discomfort necessitating the recruitment of a third bus.
Around 4:15 a.m., the students were fortunate to receive the hospitality of management from a Super 8 and a Hampton Inn in Hillsville, Va. Though students were initially split up between the two locations, they ended up spending the night in the conference room of the Hampton Inn, where they had a continental breakfast the following morning.
"The guests were really intrigued with us," said Kopp, noting that many students were still visibly covered in ashes. Several of those who had lost their belonging received gifts of cash and clothing from hotel guests and strangers they encountered along the way. "I just have a restored faith in humanity," McCormick said.
Sancilio worked with Campus Auxiliary Services, Residence Life, Financial Aid, the Provost's Office, Lauderdale Health & Counseling, the Office of Student and Campus Life and other departments to reach out to the students, many of whom had lost laptops, wallets, identification and other valuables in the fire. "The college has been really good about [helping us]," said Mihalic, who is using a loaned laptop from the college since hers was destroyed in the fire.
"We were impressed by Geneseo - they thought of everything," Kopp said.
On Monday, Sancilio hosted a meeting with students who were on the bus and an attorney who advised them about filing claims with the bus' insurance company for lost personal items. The students will file claims individually, but there are talks to write a joint letter to the company and potentially seek legal action for the inconveniences of not being provided any accommodations once it was clear that the trip home would be indefinitely delayed. "We felt like we were making all the decisions, the bus company and the bus drivers did nothing," Mihalic said.
A representative from Breakaway Tours declined to comment on the incident but acknowledged that Monday's meeting was intended to provide students with instruction on how to proceed.
"We're very proud of how our students have handled this very unfortunate event," said Rose Anderson, assistant vice president for alumni affairs. The Alumni Association has partnered with the Undergraduate Alumni Association to coordinate the annual spring break trip and has been working with Breakaway Tours specifically since 2003. "We're thankful that everybody came home."
"I was really proud of the way everyone on our bus helped each other," O'Keefe said. "I could not have asked for a more mature and caring group of Geneseo students to go through such a terrible experience with."