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Bus driver tells of harrowing escape from Camp Fire

CORNING — Friday, Kevin McKay, his mother Sherry, son Shaun and girlfriend enjoyed a quiet dinner at the Corning Holiday Inn and Express, but just a week and a day earlier he was tasked with getting 22 children from Ponderosa Elementary School in Paradise to safety.
Kevin McKay formerly managed the Red Bluff Walgreens, commuting from Paradise, having lived there since 1989. He’s lived in the house he lost to the fire since 2012. April 27, 2017 is a date that changed his life. It’s when he started his path that ultimately put him in the precarious position of getting 22 students, two teachers and one young lady who climbed aboard his school bus to safety. It’s the day he started his journey to becoming a school bus driver.
The bus made it out thanks to assistance from two teachers, Abigail Davis and Mary Ludwig, who stayed with the bus, and Principal Ed Gregorio, who followed in a pickup to assist in getting the bus through traffic, McKay said.
“They kept the students calm,” McKay said. “The students were brave little troopers.”
The day started out like any other, but at 7:47 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 8, that all changed as McKay and others at Ponderosa Elementary School saw the smoke and began talking about it. There were no evacuation orders at the time.
Just 10 minutes later the call to evacuate came.
“I was at Ponderosa Elementary and at that time I had an empty bus because I had just unloaded,” McKay said. “It was fairly chaotic. Lots of the parents had come. Not one bus driver veered from the mandatory evacuation plan. Everybody did exactly what they were asked to do.”
McKay and the teachers began the planning stages, going over the evacuation plan and making sure each adult knew their role and had a copy of the list of students in their care. The journey would not end until about 2:30 p.m., when they arrived at Biggs Elementary.
During that period, McKay called to check on his girlfriend as well as his son Shaun who was home sick in the care of McKay’s mother Sherry. His girlfriend went to a hotel in Chico.
“Because administration was connecting parents and kids I had time to call my family and make sure they had made it out of town and that let me do what I do,” McKay said. “I was where I was supposed to be. I feel blessed. It hadn’t made sense financially for a while, but it all makes sense now. It’s wild. It was the right place at the right time.”
The bus began its journey to safety, but by 8:52 a.m. had only made it to the area of Pentz and Wagstaff roads, about an eighth of a mile from the school.
“It was dark and smokey and beginning to get more and more dark, almost like dusk,” McKay said. “An hour later, we had only traveled about two miles and were on Clark.”
The teachers were stationed by windows, constantly scanning what was going on while keeping an eye on the students. They also took pictures for him to document the trip.
Just before 10 a.m., the fire was creeping closer to the side of the road, a fully engulfed building was visible and students began to get antsy, McKay said. A few minutes later, the bus was passing the McDonald’s, which was already on fire, and KFC restaurants.
“Fifteen minutes and we were still in it,” McKay said. “It had gotten better, but then the fire just kept coming closer.”
The bus was going nowhere fast. Many people had gotten out of their vehicles to see what was halting traffic.
“That’s when I saw something that gives me hope for the next generation,” McKay said.
A young man, 22, stopped because he knew there were children on the bus. The young man offered a bottle of water to the bus, apologizing that it was all he had to offer.
Putting the bottle to good use, McKay took his cotton shirt and tore it into strips, which the teachers got wet and handed to students to use as masks. The timing was perfect as there were several students nauseated and a few feeling sleepy.
By 12:29 p.m., McKay said he could see the beginnings of the sky and by 12:31 p.m. daylight as the bus went by the landfill on Neal Road.
About 2:30 p.m., the bus made it to Biggs where they stopped at the Pizza Round Up. Intending only to stop for a bathroom break, the owner surprised the group with several extra large pizzas and sodas. The stop helped calm the students before making their way to Biggs Elementary School.
Unsure whether he still has a job as a contract employee, McKay said he feels blessed to have made it through.
“I’ve never been in something like this,” McKay said. “It was embers and ashes in the air and it sprinkled fire all over town. There were 1,000 fires in every direction. The bus that took the Butte Meadows route beat us to Chico by two and a half hours.”
McKay stayed with the students until the last one was reunited with a parent.
“It was 9 p.m. before we finally saw him,” said Sherry McKay. “I grew up in Chico and my husband in Magalia. I remember thinking (a fire) could happen, but not one like this.”

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