California Courage Discipline

California: The Gripping Story of One School Bus Trying to Escape the Paradise Fire

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I read this excerpt from a new book, published in the Washington Post, and was mesmerized by the account. The book’s author is Lizzie Johnson, a Post reporter. I hope the Post will forgive me for reprinting it. I promise to delete the post if they object. Read it while you can and buy the book to make amends for reading this preview. Subscribe to the Washington Post so you can see the pictures that the two teachers took from inside the bus. The story is moving not only because of the bravery of the bus driver and the teachers and children, but because of the generosity they encountered along the way.

This story is adapted from “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire,” which was published this week by Penguin Random House.

The flames were just a mile from Ponderosa Elementary School when Kevin McKay opened the door of Bus 963 to about two dozen children, their eyes wide with fear.

It was 8:45 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2018, and the deadliest wildfire in California history was tearing toward Paradise, a working-class town in a region once again being devastated by conflagration.

The children being evacuated included the twin daughters of an immigrant couple who owned a local Thai restaurant. The 10-year-old daughter of a bartender. A 7-year-old whose father was in nearby Tehama, painting the small-town mayor’s front door.

Their parents commuted to distant communities or worked low-wage jobs that they couldn’t walk away from, even in an emergency. They weren’t able to collect their sons and daughters as the wind-fueled Camp Fire advanced on their Northern California community of 26,000 with astonishing speed.

School bus driver Kevin McKay was responsible for the safety of 22 children and two teachers as a wildfire tore through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2018.

McKay, a part-time driver who made $11 an hour, had to find a way to get the children and two of their teachers to safety. He knew that the few roads out of Paradise would be clogged with other motorists trying to escape.

He turned the 35,000-pound bus onto Pentz Road, peering through the dark smoke. Cinders tumbled from the clouds, igniting thousands of small fires along the roadside. McKay planned to cut across town to reach Clark Road — the second-largest thoroughfare in Paradise, able to accommodate 900 cars per hour — then head to Oroville, 24 miles away. Traffic was piling up on Pentz Road, and he didn’t want to get stuck.

Behind him, the 22 schoolchildren on the bus were si­lent, an eerie contrast to the din of his regular route. When the wildfire was reported, he was the bus driver closest to Ponderosa Elementary and offered to help.

The chil­dren, too small to see over the tops of the seats, were nearly invisible in his rearview mirror. McKay, 41, spotted a golden yellow beanie and a blue tie-dyed baseball cap. He didn’t know their names; they didn’t know his.

“Who are you?” Mary Ludwig, a second-grade teacher, had asked when McKay pulled up at the school.

She had never seen him before, which she found odd. Ludwig, 50, had taught in the district since 1994, and she thought she knew every bus driver. She was friendly with a lot of people in Paradise; she and her nine siblings had grown up there.

McKay had spent much of his life there, too, moving to town when he was 12. He’d been captain of the Paradise High School football team before graduating in 1995. Now, he was a twice-divorced father of two who’d worked as a manager at a distant Walgreens until the long hours and commute wore him out. In 2018, he’d quit and gotten the job driving the school bus, which would give him time to start classes at the community college. He wanted to get an education degree and teach history at Paradise High.

McKay told Ludwig that he was new to the school district, but not new to Paradise.

Mary Ludwig hadn’t expected to get on Bus 963 when she walked her last three students out of the building that morning. The fire had swept down from the Feather River Canyon with almost no warning.

Chunks of burned bark were raining down on the playground. A firebrand landed in her hair, singeing it. She guided her second-graders to the bus, as the other teachers had.

“I need you to come with me,” McKay implored. Someone had to look after the children as he drove.
Ludwig was a devoted teacher, who liked crafting creative lesson plans. She’d recently read her kids “James and the Giant Peach” in a bad British accent. Then she’d taught them about the momentum of the peach by having the children toss balls down a knoll, studying how slope affected speed.

Now, with the fire gaining its own momentum, Ludwig wanted to drive home to check on her teenage son. But she knew that if her own child were boarding a bus with a new driver during a natural disaster, she would want a teacher to be with them.

She persuaded Abbie Davis, a first-year kindergarten instructor, to join her.
Davis was 29 and newly engaged. Now, as she boarded the bus, she worried whether she and her fiance would survive to see their wedding day. Ludwig clambered up behind her.

“You’d better be a good driver,” she told McKay.

In his rearview mirror, McKay watched the playground at Pon­derosa Elementary disappear in the distance. He turned off Pentz Road and onto Wag­staff Road, where flames were roaring along the edges.

The air was stifling, greased with carcinogens from burning household products. Embers lunged sideways on the downdraft.

McKay called Ludwig and Davis to the front, pointing out the fire extinguisher and the first aid kit. He gestured to the two emergency exits and emphasized that they were not going to leave the bus unless they absolutely had to. It was the safest place to be.

Ludwig thanked him. He told the teach­ers to take attendance and pair older children with younger ones.

“And handwrite three copies as you take roll,” he said, “so each one of us has a manifest of the kids in our care.”

“Why?” Ludwig asked.

“If something happens,” McKay answered, “authorities need to know who was on this bus.”

“Is it 10 p.m.?’


The teachers walked down the aisle of the bus, following McKay’s instructions.

Rowan Stovall, who had just turned 10, was seated beside a kindergartner. She tried to comfort her.
“You’ll see your mom and dad again,” she said, clutching the little girl’s hand. “The bus isn’t going to catch on fire. We are going to be okay, I promise.”

A boy in a flannel shirt tugged on Ludwig’s shirt sleeve as she passed him.

“Is it 10 p.m.?” he asked. He was confused; it was so dark outside.

Another boy was in a panic, ripping at his hair as he babbled about how his “94-year-old” cat was going to burn up. Even more worrisome were the ones who didn’t speak at all.

“How do I distract the children and reassure them at the same time?” Ludwig thought.


She knelt beside a tiny girl in a zipped fleece jacket, asking her name for the manifest. The girl was so terrified that she couldn’t remember her last name. Ludwig rubbed her back.


Across the row, she saw a backpack resting on an empty seat. A kindergartner had curled up beneath the bench, cocooning herself from the unfolding nightmare outside the bus.


McKay went over different scenarios in his head, trying to fig­ure out the best way to get down Clark Road.

An RV cut in front of him. “How dare you,” McKay thought, seething. “Can’t you see there are children on board?”


He was not going to panic. He knew that children were sensitive to the energy of those around them. He could see the kids’ hysteria escalate whenever the teachers took a break to stare out the windows, or take photos on their cellphones, or call their loved ones. The women’s voices warbled with fear.
Ludwig’s son hadn’t evacuated soon enough and was now trapped on Pearson Road, which dropped into a gully known as Dead Man’s Hole for its lack of cell service.


Davis worried that her fiance, Matt Gerspacher, who was refusing to leave their house until he saw the bus pass by, might die because of his stubbornness.


McKay flicked on the ceiling light so other drivers could see the children in the back of the bus. He asked that Davis be his scout, pacing in the aisle and calling out new spot fires along Clark Road so he would know when to change lanes and keep some distance from the flames.


He learned to read the arc of Davis’s eyebrow and the tilt of her head, the subtle ways she signaled the presence of flames, not wanting to speak aloud and scare the children. Meanwhile, Ludwig continued scribbling down their names.


Two of the school district’s assistant superintendents emerged from the smoke and knocked on the glass door. McKay was startled, then opened it for them.

Their truck had caught fire in the parking lot of Ponderosa Elementary, and they had decided to proceed on foot. It was faster than driving anyway. Boarding the bus for a few minutes, they warned McKay to avoid Paradise Elementary — an evacuation center and for years the town’s only elementary school — because it was already on fire. Then the two got off to continue their walk. They planned to help direct traffic.

Now the blaze was everywhere, scorching the mountains and hillsides with unprecedented fury. The red and blue spin of police lights ricocheted past as officers drove into ditches and around fallen trees, rushing in response to reports about a cluster of people trapped in the basement of Feather River Hospital. They were also trying to track down a woman who had gone into labor in the Fastrip gas station parking lot.

Ludwig pointed out the first responders to the children.
“Look at those brave men coming to help us!” she said.
The children screamed through the locked windows: “Thank you! We love you!” Their noses left smudges on the glass.

They passed beloved landmarks: Paradise Alliance Church, Moun­tain Mike’s Pizza, McDonald’s, Dollar General. The Black Bear Diner, with its carved wooden bear propped out front, holding a sign reading, “Welcome to Bearadise.”
The familiar sights offered a sense of hope. “Who likes pancakes?” Ludwig yelled, smiling broadly and raising her hand. A smattering of small palms followed.

McKay commented that he also kept a wooden bear statue in front of his house. The children laughed, because they knew that couldn’t be true — there was only one “Welcome to Bearadise” sign!
The sky broke, the velvet black fading to light gray. Then the darkness closed in again. They’d been on the bus for two hours now and had gone little more than a mile. Flames cat­apulted onto the roofs of the Black Bear Diner and the McDon­ald’s, then spread towards the KFC restaurant down the block.

Ludwig fell silent. So did the children.

As they turned onto Pearson Road and passed the intersection of Black Olive Drive, an officer directed the bus south, away from the Skyway, the main thoroughfare out of Paradise. They had been one block away. For a short distance, they moved easily, without stopping.

McKay was trying to escape along routes that only a native would know — but he was turned away repeatedly by law enforcement officers with out-of-town uniforms who claimed to know better.

The bus was pushed off Pearson Road to smaller streets: south on Foster, east on Buschmann, south on Scottwood. Miraculously, a text had made it through the cellphone gridlock from McKay’s girlfriend letting him know that his family was safe in Chico. She had gotten a hotel room for his son and mother. A small mercy.

Roe Road appeared before them. It was dangerously narrow, its sides flanked by dead brush and ponderosa pines. All morning, McKay had referred to the timber in Paradise as fuel — a phrase that Ludwig and Davis had never heard.
To them, trees were a source of beauty. Ludwig described the town’s ponderosa pine groves as the “rainforest” of Paradise. But looking ahead, McKay’s word choice made sense. Roe Road was claustrophobic. It was harrowing on an ordinary day because the line of sight was so limited. Now it looked as though the brush could ignite at any moment.

A Paradise police officer flagged McKay down.
“Do you have kids on this bus?” the officer said, peering up as McKay cranked open the driver’s window. “I’m about to shut this road down, but you go first. Get out of here.”

“Hey, man, Roe Road is highly overgrown,” McKay said. “I’m worried about getting through there.”
“Just go,” the officer replied. “There’s no other way out.”

McKay halted in the middle of the intersection of Scottwood and Roe, trying to leave a football field’s length between the bus and the car ahead. The pause also gave him an opportunity to attempt a getaway: He tried, very slowly, to pivot away from Roe Road and take a different route, against the officer’s recommendation. The drivers behind him laid on their horns, livid that he wasn’t moving forward. They wedged their vehicles into the clearance, and the patrolman directed a few more cars forward into the intersection, trapping McKay in place.

In the confusion, an elderly driver scraped the back of the bus, jostling the children from their seats. McKay was stuck. The decision had been made for him: The only way out was forward.

Ludwig, who had been helping calm a student, recognized the road. She walked to the front of the bus.

“What the heck, Kevin?” she said, her voice cracking. “Why are you taking us down Roe Road?”

She begged him to go a different way. “You know it’s a death trap,” Ludwig said. “Please do not take us down this road.”

McKay gripped the steering wheel. They didn’t have a choice, he said.

Davis interrupted, saying she thought some of the children were in shock. She didn’t know what to do.

Ludwig switched places with her, sitting with a young girl who usually had a lively personality but was now morose.

The children grew drowsy, some on the verge of passing out, nauseated by the carbon monox­ide and exhaust fumes. Hours had passed since they’d last had food or water. The bus was unbearably hot.

McKay kept his eyes locked on the road ahead. The canopy ruffled, ready to catch flame. Ludwig squeezed the girl’s hand once more, then walked back to the front of the bus, sliding into a seat with Davis. She was depleted.

For a moment, the two women found solace in each other.

“Look out the window, Mary,” Davis whispered. “I don’t think we’re going to make it.”

They clutched hands, imprinting tiny half moons on each other’s skin with their nails, Davis’s fist as small as a songbird. She revealed that she had already lost one fiance in a riverboating accident — and now the man who had offered her a sec­ond chance at marriage was refusing to leave town for her sake. What if he died while waiting for her?
Together, she and Ludwig whispered prayers. Ludwig wondered whether the school district might later fire her for this public show of faith. Perhaps, she thought, administrators would understand that this was a special circumstance.
“Please,” the teachers pleaded, “let the smoke kill us first.”

‘Way too dangerous’

The brake lights ahead of McKay dimmed, and traffic moved forward. Roe Road, with its drooping oak and pine boughs and tangled brush, lay ahead. Glancing in the rearview mir­ror, he saw the two teachers huddled together in a single seat. He didn’t like seeing them so upset.

“All right, girls, we’ve got a job to do!” he hollered.
Davis, her prayer finished, darted forward and stood by his seat. Her eyes were bloodshot from the six hours she had spent in the smoke.

Earlier, she had told Ludwig that she was worried that they would lose a kinder­gartner to smoke inhalation or carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Hey, Kevin,” Davis said now, “the kids are starting to pass out. They can’t breathe. What should we do?”

McKay slithered out of his black polo and yanked his extra-large undershirt over his head, tossing it at Davis. She held it gingerly.

“Tear it into 25 squares, so we each have one,” McKay explained, pulling the polo back over his belly. He put his foot on the brake and showed her how to rip the cotton undershirt into rags. “We’ll douse it with some water, and the kids can use them as masks.

Ludwig helped shred the thin shirt into pieces, and Davis soaked them with water from a half-full plastic bottle in her purse — the only water on the bus. She dispensed the dampened masks to the children and instructed them to hold the fabric over their mouths.

“I want you guys to suck on the rag a little bit,” Ludwig told them. “It’ll make your throats feel better. But I have to warn you, I don’t know when bus driver Kevin last washed his undershirt!”
The students giggled.

Davis walked down the aisle with the last dregs of water, giving each child a sip. She would have loved some herself: Her chest ached, her head swam and each inhalation scratched her throat like gravel. But she had to save as much as she could. Some­one might need it more.

Ludwig took over to give Davis a second to rest. As she walked down the bus aisle with the bottle, she tripped, spilling the precious water.

“Kevin, I need to get off this bus to get more water,” she said as she returned to the driver’s seat.
“I’m not letting you off. It’s way too dangerous out there,” he said.

“I don’t care, Kevin,” Ludwig replied. “We need water.”

He knew she was right. He opened the door, and she descended into the darkness.


Feeling her way along Roe Road, Ludwig bumped into a tall, rangy figure. He was a young man in his 20s, inked with tattoos, who had aban­doned his car to see why traffic wasn’t moving.


“Do you have any water?” Ludwig asked, uncertain how he would react. “I have 22 kids on a bus, and we need it badly.”


“Let me check my car,” he said, cutting back through traffic.


“Thank you,” Ludwig said.

A few minutes later, he reappeared with two plastic bottles. They were crunched and nearly empty, as though they had been rolling around his floorboards for a year, but they contained some water. His generosity felt staggering.


She returned to the bus, which hadn’t gone far: Every 10 minutes or so, it would shudder forward an inch, if that. They had been trapped on Roe Road for more than an hour, although they were only half a mile from merging onto Neal Road, which promised a direct route to Oroville — and safety.


Ludwig and Davis were resoaking the rags when McKay noticed an older man hosing down his travel trailer. He asked Ludwig to hop off the bus to fill up their three water bottles. The teacher did, feet crunching across the desiccated grass. Reach­ing the man, she held out the three bottles and asked if he would fill them.


“Of course,” he replied. “How many kids do you have?”


She told him and he ducked inside his home, returning with half a case of water bottles. He handed the flat to Ludwig without a word, then picked up his hose again.

“If the bus catches fire, can we come huddle with you?” Ludwig asked.

“Sure,” the man said, splashing more water onto his trailer.

“Mary,” McKay yelled to her. “Get back on board!”
The bus was creeping forward, and although they weren’t going far, he didn’t want her out of sight.
Ludwig sprinted back. She and Davis drizzled more water into the children’s mouths. Their lips were chapped from the smoke and dehydration, and their faces were pink with exertion.


The students did whatever was asked of them with­out complaint, although they were exhausted. The fire outside had heated up the metal bus like a pizza oven. Ludwig estimated that it had to be at least 100 degrees. The children were sweating through their clothing.


One young boy had undone the buttons on his flannel shirt, exposing his pale, bare chest.


A few rows back, 10-year-old Rowan Stovall couldn’t tear her eyes away from the bus window and the wildfire consuming Paradise.


The days of fishing for bluegill at the Aquatic Park, baiting them with dandelions, seemed like a thing of the past. She feared there would be no more collecting crystals or skipping rocks at Paradise Lake with her mom, no more karate or horseback riding lessons.


Rowan, who was nicknamed Rowboat by her mother, was tough. She never cried when she skinned her knee or bit her lip — she had been raised with male cousins — but she couldn’t hide her emotions if someone hurt her feelings. She loved animals with a tenderness that her mother found endearing: She doted on their three cats and tracked the speckled fawns that munched on their lawn in the evening.

Now, as Rowan stared out at the burning forest, she saw a deer trapped by a burning log. Its spotted body stumbled forward, then slumped to the ground, overtaken by flames.


‘We’re moving!’


McKay cranked open the bus door.
“Do you need a ride?” he asked a young woman who looked lost on the side of Roe Road.


The 20-year-old preschool teacher gratefully boarded Bus 963. Her car had run out of gas a few blocks back, she said, and she no longer had a way out of town. She slid into a seat in the back, passing rows of quiet children, uninter­ested in the presence of a stranger. They were too worn out to care.


The intersection with Neal Road neared. As the car in front of him turned, McKay finally got a glimpse of the crossroads. Vehicles were crammed into every lane. Panicked drivers wouldn’t let the bus merge.


Everything ahead of them was ablaze: houses, trees, shrubs. If McKay didn’t kick the bus into gear, they were going to get caught, too — but there was nothing he could do, nowhere he could go.


In the back of the bus, Ludwig gripped her inhaler, her asthma aggravated by the dense smoke. Davis closed her eyes and thought of her fiance. McKay pictured the 22 children running for their lives, scattering into the forest in every direction.


Just then, a truck cut around the bus and blocked a lane of traf­fic on Neal Road. McKay accelerated into the space and made a wide turn onto the evacuation route. The truck belonged to the Ponderosa Elementary School principal, who had been tailing the bus for miles to make sure the children got to safety.

McKay swung the bus onto the road and hit the gas. “We’re moving!” he exclaimed, incredu­lous.
Davis turned to look out the window. They were passing a fa­miliar property — the home of her future in-laws, where she had enjoyed many holiday meals and Sunday dinners.


She spotted her fiance’s truck parked in the driveway, and his father standing alongside it in a reflective yellow vest. Neither of the men was budging until they knew she was safe. She had argued with Gerspacher about it on the phone earlier, begging him to leave.


“Nope, not doing it,” he had replied. To see him now felt like the greatest gift. Davis waved at him, awash in emotion.


Bus 963’s final stop


An officer by a barricade blocked the school bus from entering Chico, and traffic toward Oroville was gridlocked. So McKay drove 25 miles south to the tiny town of Biggs, arriving around 2 p.m. More than six hours had passed since they’d boarded the bus.


After a food and bathroom break, the children were taken to Biggs Elementary, where Ludwig’s father had once taught. She nearly cried at the sight of the familiar brick building.


Her own school, Ponderosa Elementary, had been badly damaged in the wildfire, which, they would learn later, had claimed 85 lives and 11,000 homes. McKay’s house was gone. So was Davis’s. Ludwig’s had survived, but she knew that Paradise would never be the same.

Kevin McKay’s house was destroyed by the fire. He doesn’t plan to rebuild it and has since moved to Chico, although he still owns the property.
They’d reckon with those losses in the days and weeks to come.

Now McKay locked Bus 963, its ceiling encrusted with layers of black soot and dust, and followed the coughing children into Biggs Elementary.

Some of their parents, including Rowan Stovall’s mother, Nicole Alderman, had spent the past few hours at a Mormon temple in Chico waiting to learn the fate of their kids.

Alderman tried not to give in to fear, but wondered if Rowan “was scared, if she was alone. I was just trying to stay calm and focused, because being panicked wasn’t going to help me find her.”
Then a text arrived. It contained a snapshot of a Bus 963 manifest, the names of the students aboard scribbled in pen on a piece of paper. A school administrator read the list out loud and asked the parents to make the half-an-hour drive to Biggs.
Their children were alive.

Lizzie Johnson is an enterprise reporter at The Washington Post and the author of “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire.”

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