The University of Virginia’s College at Wise announced on Saturday that all of the college’s buses will be grounded and undergo safety inspections in the aftermath of a fire that broke out on a bus transporting the Cavaliers’ softball team on Friday night.
“We are thankful that our softball team and coaches were safely removed from the bus when it caught on fire following a tire blowout in Ohio tonight,” UVa-Wise Chancellor Donna P. Henry said in a statement posted to the college’s Facebook page.
“The safety of our student-athletes is of utmost importance to me and UVa-Wise. We have had several minor bus breakdown in past months, but nothing as serious as the incident Friday night. The administration and I will look into the situation and take necessary steps to ensure all of our buses continue to operate safely.”
According to the statement, the bus was transporting the softball team to Wheeling, West Virginia on Friday night when a rear wheel hub came loose — causing a tire to blowout.
“I was sitting about three rows back from the front of the bus…We were sliding forward and to the right. (bus driver Don Newlon) made the comment that we probably had a flat. But then I heard another thud,” senior outfielder Ava Hockey said.
“Don was trying everything to pull the bus over to the right hand side of the road with minimal damage to us. Miraculously Don got us over, immediately opened the door, and got off to see what had happened. He looked out the door and immediately got back on and yelled fire everybody off.”
Everyone on board was able to safely evacuate the bus, but the team’s equipment as well as many personal items were left behind. At first it was believed that all items left on the bus were lost, but firefighters were able to recover some of the bags that had been in the luggage compartments below the bus.
“I called my mom and told her what happened I remember her calming me down. After I hung up with her I remember just standing on the side of the road crying watching the bus burn and thinking, ‘Everything is gone. We aren’t going to be able to play anymore,’” Hockey said.
“Then I remember it was like Christmas, the firefighters started bringing us our equipment, softball bags and duffle bags that were in the compartment under the bus. I remember all of us crying in tears of joy because even though the stuff smelled terrible we still had some stuff left.”
The team was transported to a hotel for the evening, and on Saturday the college hired a charter bus to bring them back to Wise.
The Cavaliers’ baseball, tennis, golf and lacrosse teams were all also on the road this weekend, but there were no mechanical problems reported with any of the buses that were used. Jesse French, a junior attacker on the UVa-Wise lacrosse team, said that she was shocked to hear about what had happened to the softball team, but she was not worried about anything similar happening on her bus while her team traveled.
“Of course after hearing about the softball’s bus there was some paranoia at first. But we have Scott (Kiser) who is a great driver so it feels like a normal bus drive,” French said.
“I talked to two of the girls the night it happened and they seemed very shaken up from it. It’s one of those things that you see on the news but you never would imagine happening to someone you know.”
As a result of the incident, the Cavaliers’ scheduled doubleheaders at Wheeling Jesuit University on Saturday and at West Liberty University on Sunday were postponed. On Tuesday, Uva-Wise Assistant Director of Media Relations Alyce Bryant said that the team will play in their scheduled home doubleheader against Concord University on Wednesday afternoon, and the fire will not effect their ability to complete their 2019 season.
In another statement posted on the college’s Facebook page on Saturday afternoon, Henry said that while breakdowns will occur from time to time, a “rash of incidents lately” with buses breaking down led to the necessity of grounding all buses after Friday’s incident.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we will have an independent shop examine each bus to ensure the vehicles are safe. We will arrange alternative transportation until we receive a clear report from the independent shop,” Henry said. “We want to be absolutely sure of the mechanical safety of our buses before we put the vehicles on the road again. We value all of our students and our Highland Cavalier family, and the administration and I are taking these steps to ensure our buses remain in solid mechanical order.”
UVa-Wise Director of College Services Joe Kiser said the college is currently working with their insurance to file claims on items damaged in the fire, as well as replace all items that were destroyed. Kiser said that they currently do not have a timetable for when the inspections of the buses will be completed, but the college will charter buses for the remainder of the semester.
“Because we are relying on independent shops, we cannot estimate how long it will take. Inspections themselves will cost approximately $150 from what we have been estimated so far,” Kiser said. “We are going to charter the remaining trips this year…Once we receive the buses back, we will discuss our plans on the future.”
Hockey said that in the aftermath of the incident, the team feels angry and upset over what they felt were recurring issues with the buses used by the college that had not been fully addressed. She said that she hopes what her team went through will be able to cause changes with the operation of the college’s buses.
“We had a meeting…on Saturday with Chancellor Henry and some other people and got to voice our opinions about what happened. The Chancellor was honestly shocked and I think a little upset that the problems with the athletic transportation hadn’t been brought to her attention sooner,” Hockey said.
“After the meeting I felt better but I’m still angry and very upset. I think we all are. None of us have really slept or wanted to be without one another the past couple days. I’ve had dinner with a couple of the girls the past two nights just to take our minds off of what happened. I think we are all just a little upset that it took us almost dying for the school to bring the transportation problems to light.”