SHELDON — Vikki Boyce Czechowicz was working at Tops in Attica when a former school bus driver convinced her to work for First Student Transportation and driver her kids and others to school each day.
Today, the parents of 19 kids are glad she made the career change over five years ago.
An electrical fire in the engine compartment caused her bus to start to fill with smoke just before 8 a.m. today. She was picking up two students and was able to get the 17 children who were on the bus, off the bus and to safety.
Moments later, the fire engulfed the engine and the front tires exploded.
“The kids were in the driveway of the house I was supposed to be stopping at, I had them stay there and far enough away in case something exploded and the front tires did explode,” Boyce Czechowicz told The Daily News. “It was a bit scary when they exploded, but I tried to remain calm until everyone was off, then I got a little shaky.”
However, she said she pulled herself together and after the kids were taken to the Varysburg Fire Hall and later to the school to be checked by the nurse, she drove a group of Attica seniors to Ellicottville for a class trip.
Nicole Dobbs’ daughter, Natalie, 7, was on the bus in the second row when it happened.
“Natalie is OK, she is a little shaken up. She sits in the front of the bus being so little, she usually sits in the second window behind Miss Vikki,” said Dobbs. “Natalie started smelling and seeing smoke come into the front of the bus, Miss Vikki pulled over and said everybody out. She got them safely away from the bus.
“Vicki is an awesome bus driver. Our family knows her outside of being Natalie’s bus driver. She is very protective,” Dobbs continued. “She will scold them if they don’t look both ways and makes them do it again. My daughter loves her, always talks to her, we’ve never had any issues ... she is a good person and very kind.”
After talking to her daughter and her parents, Dobbs said of Boyce Czechowicz, “If it weren’t for her and she waited five seconds longer, it could have been worse .. way worse.”
Dobbs said the bus that came to the scene was not big enough to transport all the students at once, so they went to the fire hall. She said her daughter was wet and cold, checked by a nurse at the school and released to go home with her parents.
“They had to stand in the rain for a short period of time, but my daughter is warm and cozy at home,”Dobbs said. “I didn’t want her to sit through the say at school like that.”
Attica Central School Superintendent Bryce Thompson told The Daily News, “She immediately evacuated the bus and safely got all the kids off it before anything was noticeable, but eventually the bus did fully catch on fire.”
District officials heard the activation tones over the fire scanner shortly before 8 a.m. and the transportation provider — Student Transportation of America — was calling simultaneously to inform the district, he said.
The bus was reportedly a total loss.
Boyce Czechowicz said the fire took place 75 feet away from where a fatal accident took place on Sunday. That accident, between a truck and SUV, claimed the life of three people in the SUV. The driver was charged with aggravated vehicular homicide, driving while intoxicated and other charges.
“I told the officer when he took the deposition this is not a very good road,” she said.
The bus had students ranging from kindergarten to seniors. At the scene, the seniors took care of the younger students while firefighters from Sheldon and Varysburg responded. Batavia-based State Police said an investigation is ongoing.
“Fortunately the school goes through trainings in the early part of the school year for drivers and students on how to respond to emergencies,” Thompson said. “All that training came out today. They were prepared, they responded, and everything came out well today.”
A complete story will appear in Wednesday’s Daily News.