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Surry County school bus driver saves children from fire

Sondra Artis had a feeling something was wrong with her bus while she was driving students. A short time later, the bus was on fire, but the children were safe.
Credit: Scharnelle Hamlin
A school bus in Surry County, Va. caught fire on March 24, 2022.

DENDRON, Va. — People in Surry County, especially some parents, are thanking a school bus driver who managed to get students off the bus a short time before it caught fire.

Sondra Artis was taking the students to school on March 24 when she caught a whiff of an odor.

"I kept smelling something," Artis explained. "I don't know what it is. I never smelled anything like it before."

Although one of the boys on the bus told her he couldn't smell anything, she realized the scent was getting stronger. In the midst of a downpour, and with the bus' windows fogging up, Artis reached out to the transportation department of Surry County Public Schools for help.

Right after that, she saw something coming from the hood, but wasn't sure if it was steam or smoke. Artis was able to get in touch with another bus driver in the area before the smell got "powerful" and smoke started coming into the cabin. A popping sound soon followed.

The busses met up. Artis reminded the children that they've done emergency drills before, telling them, "Stay calm. We're going to have a real one."

With the rain still coming down, Artis got all of the children, ages 4 to 17, off the bus. A parent had pulled up to help, and Artis got herself off the bus, seeing a spark or two. She told the driver of the other bus to drive. She didn't want the children to see what was happening.

A parent told Artis as soon as that other bus was out of sight, her own bus went up in flames.

"Thank you, Jesus," Artis remembered thinking. "I got my babies off the bus."

Credit: Sondra Artis
Sondra Artis

Artis wasn't done protecting children that day.

She works in classrooms, too, and after all her children were dropped off at their respective schools, Artis was working in a First Grade classroom when a tornado watch went into effect for the area. When they happened, she was escorting children into the hallway, getting them into a safe position if a tornado were to come.

Artis, who has worked for Surry County Public Schools for nearly 20 years, looks at students as her "babies," her "children." She said she greets every one of them with a smile each day, and tells them to be good and that she will see them later.

Because of what she did that day, she will see them later.

Schamelle Hamlin, who contacted us to let us know what happened, said, "We love Mrs. Artis and cannot thank her enough for all that she does."

Artis said the incident left her teary-eyed. Her mother recently passed away, and her mom's favorite blanket and sweater were on the bus. Artis wasn't able to grab them before she got off.

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