It’s been four weeks since Renita Smith, school bus driver extraordinaire, helped 20 Maryland children out of her vehicle after it suddenly caught fire, and the thanks have been pouring in.
But one of the high points came last week, when she flew to Los Angeles — her first trip on a plane — to tell her story to a national audience on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
“I am just a mom,” she said in an interview after she returned home to Prince George’s County. “I’d do anything to save my babies.”
Her fast-acting rescue efforts started shortly before 5 p.m. Sept. 12, when Smith was bringing students — ages 4 to 10 — home from school on her final route of the day. As she headed down 51st Avenue in College Park, her brake light came on.
“Ms. Bus Driver, I smell smoke,” the children said.
Smith said she smelled it, too. As she pulled over, she saw the smoke. Reaching for her radio, she glanced in the side-view mirror and saw flames.
“Ms. Bus Driver, there’s fire!” the children said.
The 36-year-old Smith — a bus driver since 2014 and previously a bus aide — “went into Mommy mode,” as she recalls it. “I put the radio back down — the bus was already secured — and I got my babies and I got off that bus,” she said.
As the children stepped off, neighbors who rushed to the scene ushered them to a safe area. Smith returned to the burning vehicle and climbed aboard again, checking each row of seats. “I had to make sure that there was no one left on that bus,” she said.
As she left the bus, on the final stair, the vehicle went up in flames, she said.
“You ran back into a burning bus?” DeGeneres asked Smith on the show.
“I did,” Smith said.
The audience burst into applause.
The fire probably started from a broken brake line that caused fluid to leak onto hot brake pads, said Prince George’s Fire/EMS spokesman Mark Brady. The highly flammable liquid combined with the open windows on the bus created a volatile situation that quickly engulfed the bus in flames, Brady said.
The scene was captured on dash-camera video from a firetruck and by neighborhood residents.
Smith, a single mother of two who lives in Upper Marlboro and has worked for the school system since 1999, has been called a hero and an inspiration. She takes a more humble view. She says she regards the children on her bus as “her babies” until she returns them to their parents.
“I appreciate all the love and all of the kindness and all the kind words and all the honoring ceremonies,” she said. But as a bus driver, she said, “that’s what I am . . . a mom.”
Her actions have been recognized by many in the community, including the city of College Park, a Methodist church and the Baltimore Orioles.
Prince George’s school leaders threw her a celebration Sept. 28 at the school site where Glenarden Woods Elementary and Robert Goddard Montessori share facilities. Children from both schools were on her bus. The DuVal High School marching band played.
“Her actions that day were not ordinary,” said Kevin M. Maxwell, the schools chief in Prince George’s, at the event. “They were extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary.”
District officials posted a video on the district website in which children on the bus, one by one, express their gratitude.
“Thank you, Ms. Smith, for saving my life,” says one student.
“Thank you for getting us all out of the bus,” says another.
Fire officials honored her Sept. 20, giving Smith an award for her heroism.
“Despite the thick, black smoke and increasing flames, Smith risked her life by re-entering the bus a final time to ensure all of the children were safe,” Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said as he presented her with a certificate and a medal. “As soon as she reached the last step and was about to exit the bus, it went up in smoke.”
Smith said the day of the bus fire has been life-changing.
“You just never know when God is using you or how good God is,” she said. “Because that was only God. I don’t remember anything that was on that bus when I ran back on that bus. . . . I just know I had to make sure all of my babies were out.”
She said that when she and the children were safe in a neighbor’s back yard, she gathered them around. “Let’s do a group hug,” she said.
She also gives the children credit for how they responded.
“They rocked it,” she said. “They stayed calm, they made sure that they got off the bus calmly. They were wonderful.”
She says meeting DeGeneres was a thrill. “Ellen is so humble and nice,” she said. “It was easy to talk with her, and I was not nervous at all.” Her big surprise: Ellen presented her with a $20,000 check.
Smith was stunned.
“To just be on her show was awesome,” she said.
She says she hopes to use the gift to help buy a home, and she remains thankful tragedy was averted.
“I have looked at that bus video over and over again, and the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens are not,” she said. “We’re all out. Everybody’s home. Everybody’s good.”