Faulty battery started fire on bus carrying high school athletes

PORTLAND, Ore. - A faulty battery is to blame for a fire that burned a bus full of high school athletes on Thursday afternoon.

Investigators said the fire was unintentional and started in the engine compartment after the battery "malfunctioned." The battery somehow sparked or shorted, igniting the fire.

The charter bus was carrying players and coaches from the Central Catholic High School junior varsity football team when it caught fire on Highway 26.

All of the players, coaches and the driver safely got off before flames engulfed the rear of the bus where the engine is located.

Representatives at Blue Star Transportation, which operated the bus, said they are still conducting their own investigation into how the battery malfunctioned.

"I don't think it's ever happened before, not in my seven years here," said James Morrow, a receptionist at the company who answered a call from a reporter. "It's very unfortunate. We are proud of our driver and the football coaches. Everybody had a presence of mind to have a safe outcome."

The bus driver, Jody Fritz, said she heard explosions in the back of the bus then saw fire coming out the side. That's when she pulled over and got everybody off.

She said they tried using fire extinguishers but the flames were too big.

On Friday we sat down with Portland firefighter Tommy Schroeder to watch video of the fire. He said typically the most flammable parts of any vehicle aren't found in the engine compartment.

"The fuel lines, the fuel tanks - they're a concern for us, but generally the majority of the fire involvement is in the interior of the cabin," Schroeder said.

He commended the bus driver and other first responders for getting the students away from the smoke and for keeping the burning bus between the kids and oncoming traffic.

"Using the bus itself as kind of a traffic block so all the kids are safe from errant drivers watching the action," he said.

Schroeder said fires caused by malfunctioning batteries are rare, but they do happen. He said take it seriously if you ever suspect something is wrong with your car.

"If you smell smoke coming from the engine compartment don't hesitate to pull over, shut your engine off, pull the key out and exit the vehicle in a safe spot," Schroeder said. "Certainly you don't want to be in it when it does ignite, if it does."

KATU's Kerry Tomlinson is working to uncover more details about this story. Watch for her reports on KATU News at 4, 5 and 6 p.m.