Fire rips through Providence school bus yard, damaging at least seven vehicles

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence officials are investigating after at least six school buses went up in flames at the First Student bus yard Thursday night.

According to the Providence Firefighters Twitter page, crews responded to Ricom Way around 7:30 p.m. Thursday night.

“Although the strike presents a challenge, it does not absolve the school district from meeting its obligations to students with disabilities. The District may not foist its obligation upon parents by requiring they find, and initially fund, alternate transportation. The law is clear on this issue,” said ACLU attorney Christine Marinello. “With the strike now in its third week, the District must take proactive steps to meet its legal obligations – in Jeremy’s case and those of other students whose rights are being similarly violated.” 

First Student Spokesperson Frank McMahon tells Eyewitness News at least six buses were destroyed after being fully engulfed in flames. McMahon said the buses also sustained smoke and water damage.

Witman went on to criticize Elorza's inability to make decisions, “The school teachers [labor unrest], the bus drivers — the Fane Tower — the only thing he seems to be adamant about is his selling the water supply. He's asking the people of Providence to come up with answers. He's a one trick pony. It's shocking — that's he's staying neutral. Kids need to go to school. Parents need to go to work — what are the teachers going to do?”

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said while the cause of the fire remains under investigation, they are considering it suspicious at this time.

Eyewitness News saw arson investigators canvassing the scene. Pare said crews will likely be in the bus yard all night trying to figure out what exactly happened.

This week saw the ACLU of Rhode Island, along with two other civil rights organizations on Wednesday taking three separate legal steps with the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) on behalf of students with disabilities who are caught up in the ongoing Providence school bus strike. 

"We have some forensic work to do, they are doing some video review as well,” Pare explained.

The complaints allege that the failure of the school district to honor its responsibility under the students’ Individual Education Plans (IEPs) to provide transportation to and from school violates federal and state laws protecting the students’ rights.

According to Pare, one firefighter was injured while fighting the fires. He was taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

The bus fire takes place as the First Student and Teamsters Local 251 enter their third week in an embattled strike that has canceled all bus service for more than 9,000 Providence school children including those with special needs.

First Student, the company that currently oversees bus operations in Providence, is locked in a battle with its drivers – who are represented by Teamsters Local 251 – over retirement plans.

Presently, the existing contract with First Student has expired and the extension has yet to receive all necessary approvals. Over the past three years — 2015 to 2017, First Student has been paid in excess of $30 million.

The bus drivers have been on strike since Sept. 27, leaving more than 9,000 students without transportation to and from school.

Frank McMahon, spokesman for the bus company said that the buses cost approximately $80,000 or more. The total cost of the damage may reach $750,000. He said the buses are insured.

Teamsters Local 251 released a statement on its Facebook page saying in part, "Teamsters Local 251 and our Providence school bus drivers condemn the property damage that occurred at the First Student bus yard after we left the picket line. We are thankful there appear to have been no serious injuries among the firefighters who quickly responded."

“Several buses were on fire and have been since extinguished, the matter is under investigation. The Mayor was on scene,” said Victor Morente, spokesman for the Mayor.

The statement goes on to say, "These are our buses too. After we negotiate a secure retirement and this labor dispute ends, we’ll go back to our jobs driving those buses. Anyone who thinks that day is advanced by what happened last night is badly mistaken."

Also on Wednesday, the Providence School Committee moved forward to issue a request for proposals in order to potentially contract with a new vendor.

At this time, it's unclear if the bus yard fire is connected to the strike. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza tells Eyewitness News this incident is "bad timing," with city officials trying to mitigate the strike.

“I do know 20,000 kids, and parents, when there's a strike have no contingency plan because this Mayor has failed to show leadership,” she added.

BREAKING: Providence officials are investigating this bus yard fire as ARSON until proven otherwise. This is where First Student keeps their vehicles-it's the same company where bus drivers are currently striking in the city. @Jorge_Elorza @PvdPublicSafety

Two weeks ago Witman began a constant refrain of criticizing Elorza's lack of leadership on the bus strike. 

“Of course it is suspicious and certainly the elephant in the room, with the timing of it also being odd, what we're gonna do is a full investigation," Elorza said.

“How can a Mayor whose job it is to lead this city not want to take a position to resolve this issue?” said Witman.

Several buses went up in flames in the First Student bus yard Thursday night, with authorities saying they are investing it as arson.

Both Mayor Jorge Elorza and challenger independent Dianne “Dee Dee” Witman weighed in on the fire.

First Student Spokesman Frank McMahon told NBC 10 at least six to seven buses were involved. He said the buses have been “really destroyed,” adding that other buses potentially suffered smoke and water damage.

Six or seven really destroyed — substantially destroyed buses, he said. The Providence police asked us to come back to the fence line here. It was an active crime scene at this particular point in time. Well sit back and wait until the police department and fire department is done with their work.

Video: Several First Student buses burned in Providence

McMahon said the buses are worth approximately $60,000 to $80,000 each — a loss of nearly a half of a million dollars.

The Providence Fire Department noted in a tweet that crews were out with multiple buses on fire off Union Avenue on Ricom Way. One firefighter suffered minor injuries, but was treated at the scene.

Police said around 7:30 p.m., a nearby security guard called 911, reporting one bus on fire. Then, the flames spread.

Mayor Jorge Elorza, along with Providence Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, also responded to the scene.

Of course, it is suspicious, Elorza said. Certainly, the elephant in the room, the timing of it, also is odd.

It is unknown if the fire is connected to a strike between First Student and the bus drivers union. Teamsters Local 251 went on strike Sept. 27 after contract talks broke down over retirement benefits.

But First Student said the program is failing and that it would be irresponsible to put their workers into it. The company offered to increase 401(k) contributions.

The strike has left about 9,000 public school students without school bus rides. The city is not providing alternative transportation.

First Student and the Teamsters have until Friday to reach an agreement before the city pulls resources.

Posted in Providence