LaMonica Pitre was driving her bus on the Westpark Tollway when she noticed a wisp of smoke outside.
Then it seeped into the air conditioning vents. She glanced out at her left side mirror and saw flames engulfing the engine.
"I could actually feel the heat on the back of my neck. I couldn't see the windows clearly while I was pulling over. I didn't know how close I was to the concrete wall. I took a pretty good guess. If I got too close to the wall, I wouldn't be able to get out, I was praying, 'Let me get the door open,'" recalled Pitre, who was ending her 82 Westheimer run and returning the empty bus to the West Bus Operating Facility.
Pitre parked in the breakdown lane with just enough room to open the bus door. She pulled the lever to activate the fire suppression system, giving her 10 seconds to escape. She ran outside, called 911 and then Bus Control.
"The operator did a great job in pulling the bus over and using the fire suppression system on the bus," said Gary Scott, Safety officer.
Pitre admits it was frightening to see her bus in flames as she was traveling 50 miles an hour. But she stayed calm and followed the procedures. "Everything was training. I still remember the day we learned about this - Mr. Bob (Hofstatter) teaching us about the fire suppression system. I asked him all these questions. He said, 'Once you pull the lever, you have 10 seconds to get out of the bus because solution fills inside the bus.' The suppression system is supposed to go off by itself, but it didn't."
Pitre credits her safety training for her quick reaction. "When I learn something, I ask the right questions so I can learn it and remember it. I don't just scan through it. You give me a test on it, I'm going to pass it. Safety measures were put there for a reason," she said.
Later, Safety determined that a hydraulic hose had rubbed against the fan guard and burst. The oil splattered on hot surfaces in the engine compartment, causing a flash fire.
This was not the first time this married mother of two girls lived through a fire accident. When Pitre was 13 years old, her family's home caught on fire, and the family lost everything. It happened again when Pitre was alone at home a year later. Then four years later, Pitre's car caught on fire.
"From that, I've learned safety is important," said Pitre, who has worked at METRO four years. These days, Pitre not only performs the safety "pre-check" around her bus before she starts her morning route, she does it each time before she drives on a freeway.
"Every time. I do the 152 on Sundays. I get on I-10 from downtown to Northwest to Gessner. Eighteen times I check that bus. It takes one minute to walk around a full bus, look under it and make sure all the tires are good," said Pitre. "The highways in Houston can be very harsh."
Pitre says her next career goal is to be a Safety officer. "I know I would be good at it," she says.
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