On Thursday, November 8, bus driver Kevin McKay drove 22 Ponderosa Elementary School students to safety through California’s deadly Camp Fire. The harrowing journey, led by McKay, took five hours as the 41-year-old navigated the bus through gridlocked streets and blazing flames.
“It was very scary. It felt like Armageddon,” described second-grade teacher Mary Ludwig, 50, who was one of the other adults who boarded the bus, alongside kindergarten teacher Abbie Davis, 29, after the school got the call to evacuate at around 8 a.m. that morning. As the bus began its journey, McKay said, “It was dark and smokey and beginning to get more and more dark, almost like dusk.” Fourth-grader Charlotte Merz, 10, agreed, saying “It was so crazy, and there were fires left and right everywhere you looked.”
Yet McKay pressed on, even rescuing a preschool teacher, whose car had broken down, from the side of the road. Then, when McKay noticed that students were having difficulty breathing, he took off his shirt and ripped it into small strips, which he then doused with water using a water bottle donated by a young man driving by in traffic. The adults passed out the soaked strips to the kids so they could breathe through them.
“The students were brave little troopers,” McKay said, adding, “I’ve never been in something like this. It was embers and ashes in the air and it sprinkled fire all over town.”
Finally arriving at Biggs Elementary School at around 2:30 p.m., McKay, who had just started driving for the county a few months prior, waited with the students until the very last one was picked up. “I was where I was supposed to be. I feel blessed. It’s wild. It was the right place at the right time,” the Butte County driver explained.
And his heroism didn’t go unnoticed. As Ludwig said, “We had the bus driver from heaven.”