Off-duty firefighters are being credited with helping to get a group of 18 pilgrims back on track after their chartered bus caught fire north of Ponoka on Wednesday morning.
Craig Passmore and fellow firefighter Jim Thompson were on their way home to Edmonton from 24-hour shift at the Rocky View County’s fire station in Chestermere when they saw smoke pouring from a back wheel of a tour bus sitting at the side of Hwy 2, near the Menaik overpass.
The National Motor Coach bus had been chartered by the Tsuu T’ina First Nation, just outside of Calgary, to carry a group of elders, children and teenagers on a pilgrimage to northwest of Edmonton at Lac Ste. Anne, whose waters are believed to hold healing powers.
The driver was trying to put out the fire, but his small fire extinguisher wasn’t doing the job, said Passmore.
“By the time we pulled over, he was just finishing off his extinguisher. By that time, it was going like crazy.
“It was going up the floorboards and into the back of the bus.”
Fortunately, the wind was blowing to the east, so the smoke was not blowing into traffic coming up the highway, said Passmore.
Passmore sent Thompson into the bus to get the passengers out, including some who had mild physical handicaps, and then called 911 to get firefighters and police to the scene.
Const. Chris Noble with the Ponoka RCMP arrived at about 10:40 a.m., just minutes ahead of Ponoka firefighters, to find the bus emptied and the two firefighters directing traffic.
“It was such a relief for me, not worrying about whether I was going to have to go on the bus or whether someone was going to have go on the bus to start dragging people out,” said Noble.
Passmore and Thompson, with help from other passersby, had moved the driver and passengers to the overpass, about 75 metres away from the bus, as a precaution.
With the immediate emergency taken care of, Noble got in touch with volunteers from his detachment’s Victim’s Services unit and called the Centennial Centre (former Alberta Hospital Ponoka) to see if they were willing to lend their bus for an emergency.
“They didn’t even bat an eye. They picked up these people and brought them in.”
Bus passengers were taken into Tim Hortons at Ponoka for lunch.
Jane Wierzba was one of three Victim’s Services volunteers who met with the driver and passengers at the doughnut shop.
“The driver was really shaken up,” said Wierzba, who circulated among the group to help settle nerves and keep people calm while they waited for another bus to pick them up.
She said staff at the doughnut shop had cleared a lane to serve the group and provided everyone with food and drinks, free of charge.
In yet another stroke of good fortune, National Motor Coach happened to have an empty bus travelling through the area, said Noble. It was diverted to Ponoka to pick up the stranded passengers so they could resume their journey to Lac Ste. Anne.
While there were no injuries, some of the people on the bus had left handbags and other belongings behind, all of which was destroyed in the fire, he said.