TERENCE SMITH: This was the scene on Interstate 45 just south of Dallas early this morning, gridlock made even worse by a pre-dawn bus fire. The bus was engulfed in flames after multiple explosions just after 6 A.M. Central Time. 38 elderly evacuees and six workers from the Brighton Gardens assisted living center in the small town of Bellaire, Texas, near Houston were on board. The charred, burned-out shell of the bus sat in the middle of the road, as a 20-mile traffic jam piled up and temporarily closed the highway. Preliminary evidence suggested that the blaze was caused by mechanical problems, compounded by exploding oxygen tanks. The mayor of Bellaire expressed her condolences.
CINDY SIEGAL: It's very unfortunate. Our thoughts and our prayers are with the family members, as well as those residents. And we will just continue to do our best to work with Brighton Gardens and also to prepare for the storm.
TERENCE SMITH: Later in the day, I-45 was reopened as travelers from Houston still tried to drive out of the path of Hurricane Rita. The National Transportation Safety Board immediately launched an investigation into the incident.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now is Cynthia Vega, reporter for WFAA-TV Channel 8 in Dallas. She was at the scene of the explosion today.
Cynthia, welcome. Thank you for joining us. When did you get to the site, and what did you see?
CYNTHIA VEGA: We got there right after the bus more or less had burst into flames. The fire was pretty much out by the time we got there, maybe 30 minutes after it had first exploded. By the time we got there, a number of the people that had been taken off the bus were already spread out on the side of the road. Emergency crews from all directions had come and were immediately performing all kinds of just stabilization-type things. They were trying to treat these injured folks for burns, cuts, all kinds of things. As you know they were senior citizens, many of them already sick coming from a nursing home in the Houston area.
TERENCE SMITH: And I understand there were others in the bus; it was very hard to get them out?
CYNTHIA VEGA: Absolutely. We found out a little bit after we arrived that, in fact, during the rescue effort that had gone on, motorists from other cars, local firefighters, a number of people actually in the process of pulling these people out at the same time, there was a series of explosions that then happened and we later found out that is believed to have been caused by some tanks of oxygen that caught fire and caused a series of explosions after another fire had already begun. So obviously they had to stop those efforts and inside as many as 24 people we are now being told got trapped inside and did die.
TERENCE SMITH: And is there any evidence now what that original fire was?
CYNTHIA VEGA: The authorities say their preliminary investigation indicates that they are looking at the possibility that the brakes caught fire. You know, there's a lot of stop-and-go-traffic; it was a virtual parking lot at that main evacuation route from Houston up to north Texas. And they are telling us that that's the initial cause that they believed to be and then, as I mentioned, the series of explosions resulting from those oxygen tanks that then just made further rescues impossible. It was nothing but a shell left of that bus. I don't know if you have seen it, but it was pretty gripping.
TERENCE SMITH: The people there, these oxygen tanks were for their assistance, for the elderly that were among the evacuees?
CYNTHIA VEGA: Yes. That's correct. There were a number of people that were having breathing issues on board, and we have now been told that a lot of these elderly citizens coming up from Houston had all kinds of ailments and illnesses, breathing issues just the least of it, and those oxygen tanks did belong to them. We are told that one of the survivors was actually 101 years old. So these were very elderly folks and very feeble at that.
TERENCE SMITH: And is it correct they had traveled all night --
CYNTHIA VEGA: All night.
TERENCE SMITH: -- trying to evacuate the hurricane area?
CYNTHIA VEGA: Yes. We have now found out they were actually on board that bus for 16 hours and traveling through the dead of night, arriving there at I-45 at that point in southeastern Dallas County just at about 6 o'clock this morning, and that's when the trouble started.
We're now hearing that one of the patients had told someone at the hospital when they were being treated there that the bus driver actually got out, smelled some smoke in the rear of the bus. And then after that, that's when a nearby motorist alerted them the bus was in flames. The bus driver was, in fact, one of the survivors who did help with the rescue effort.
TERENCE SMITH: And the other survivors, and I know there were survivors, did they, how are they? They were taken to hospitals, were they?
CYNTHIA VEGA: They were all transported once stabilized to area hospitals. And we don't know the conditions at this point. But many of them were taken to the burn units at local hospitals where they have been treated for a multitude of injuries stemming from getting off that bus and the flames obviously that surrounded them, the least of which was smoke inhalation that they suffered from and some of the emergency crews telling us that this was really quite something just trying to get them out because they were just so much in shock.
I mean a lot of people lost loved ones; it was husbands and wives that were on board and you can imagine them just reeling from the shock of trying to escape Rita -- being on board this bus, getting off to flames around them and then suddenly finding that their loved one, their husband or wife were still on board and didn't make it out. It was unbelievable.
TERENCE SMITH: It sounds horrific. Cynthia Vega, thank you very much for helping us understand what happened.
CYNTHIA VEGA: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: More on the evacuation from Houston now. It comes from Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: The streets of Houston are nearly empty today. Expressways throughout the city are moving freely -- a far different picture from last night, when traffic was often at a complete standstill.
Water bottles a welcome sight for the thousands of motorists who had spent hours and even days stuck in traffic jams that stretched for 50 to 100 miles.
By nightfall Houston's mayor had issued had a call for help. Within minutes, over 300 volunteers showed up at the local bus barn to load up cases of donated water and head for the clogged expressways.
CARLYLE THOMPSON: She told me to get up and move so when I got up and moved, I came straight on down, got a little lost at first but I came on back. And you never know when you're going to need someone, so I'm just here to help as much as I possibly can.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: The problems on the highways began when over one million people responded to calls to evacuate low-lying areas. By Thursday, nearly every evacuation route was clogged with traffic. By nightfall motorists were grateful for the volunteers' help.
LOUIS VETRANO: You're welcome. I'm just amazed at how many people there are out here. I'm amazed that I can stand in the middle of I-10 and just hand out water in the middle of traffic.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: But it wasn't water that many of the stranded motorists needed. It was gas. Carmen Howard and her three kids had been on the road for 12 hours and had gone only 30 miles. But all that idling had left their gas tank nearly empty.
CAREMEN HOWARD: We don't know what to do actually. We don't know if we should turn around and if we turn around and get flooded out, I don't want to get stuck with them like that. But if we don't have any gas, we can't get any further anyway, and we don't want to get stuck out here on the highway either.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: The Villejon family didn't know what to do either. They had been on the road nearly 24 hours after obeying a mandatory evacuation order from the town of Winnie, about 20 miles inland from the Gulf. They put together a five-car caravan with their family and friends and made it as far as Katy, about 15 miles west of Houston.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: So what's your plan?
WOMAN: Wait for the gas. We're going to San Antonio.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: Did they say some may be on the way?
FELICIA WILCHECK: I called and she said that they have FEMA and Texdot out on major evacuation routes, and she says that she can't tell me where they're at, but they'll be here as soon as they can.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: But for many, gas trucks never arrived, and the fear was stranded motorists would be left on the road when Hurricane Rita hit. Still, Houston's mayor defended the evacuation plan.
MAYOR BILL WHITE: For those people in the mandatory evacuation areas we always said, "get out early" beginning on Tuesday -- "bring water; make sure you are fueled." Of course, there was a lot of people, for understandable reasons with Katrina, the number of voluntary evacuees couldn't be predicted. It's better that there are people out there that have gotten out of harm's way than not. This is one of the most dangerous storms that we've confronted.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: Regional emergency officials had coordinated a large evacuation plan for nursing home residents and others who had no other way to get out of the area. Buses brought them to the George R. Brown Convention Center, which only Tuesday had been emptied of its last Katrina victims. Lottie Shephard and her ten-year-old daughter were Katrina victims who had just been given an apartment in south Houston and now had to be evacuated again.
LOTTIE SHEPHARD: I'm doing terrible. You know, my daughter has been out of school three weeks, and I'm just looking for some type of stability for her. You know, I haven't been able to put her in school. I was going to start her in school this week but now we have to evacuate and --
ELIZABETH BRACKET: Do you know where you're going to go next?
LOTTIE SHEPHARD: I really don't.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: So you're getting on the bus and --
LOTTIE SHEPHARD: Lord only knows.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: The plan was to take most of these evacuees to George Bush intercontinental airport, where they would be airlifted to safety by FEMA. But that didn't sit well with Ray Harris, who had accompanied two busloads of patients from the nursing home where she worked. She thought they would be sheltered at the convention center and was upset to learn they would be taken out of state.
ELIZABETH BRACKET: Could your people get on an airplane and be flown to another part of the country?
RAY HARRIS: Oh, no, they'd get lost for two or three weeks, you know, if they do that, so we're trying to keep them where they'd be together where when the storm passes, we bring them back to the nursing home. ELIZABETH BRACKET: For those who stayed in Houston, the time was spent shopping for increasingly scarce supplies. In her second evacuation in less than a month, Torrey Gray had tried to get out of town yesterday.
TORREY GRAY: At least when I evacuated from New Orleans we were moving. They systems in place for the contra flow, and we were at thirty-five/forty-five miles an hour. We were at a dead stop on 159. And there's no gas. And so you have to kind of look at it and think of your own safety and say I don't have much gas up in the truck; I have to make a decision so --
ELIZABETH BRACKET: As Rita was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane, those who opted to stay in this nearly deserted town hunkered down to wait for the hurricane's arrival.