Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, one in particular just so happens to drive a school bus. What started out as an ordinary day along a familiar route, nearly turned into a tragedy for bus driver Renita Smith, and twenty elementary school students from College Park, Maryland. A split moment of quick thinking ended up meaning the difference between life and death — and Hollywood took notice.
Miss Bus Driver, Miss Bus Driver…
Being a bus driver comes with a lot of responsibility. It’s their job to make sure that every child on that bus makes it to and from school safely, every day. And as such, every bus driver and parent’s worst nightmare is that an accident happens while the bus is full of children.
On a typical Monday in September 2016, Renita Smith was about to make her final round of the day, dropping off the last twenty students from Glenarden Woods and Robert Goddard Elementary Schools. It was at that moment that the children on the bus started screaming, “Miss Bus Driver, Miss Bus Driver….”
A Loyal Employee
Renita Smith, a single mother of two herself, had been driving students from Prince George’s County School system in College Park, Maryland, since 2014. But even before driving the bus, she had worked for the county since 1999. She took her job seriously, and always had an impeccable work ethic and contagious personality.
She loved the children that she drove; especially the little ones, and she made it a point to get to know each of the students. On that particular morning in September, Smith would have her own motherly instincts put to the test.
A Worst Nightmare Realized
It was just an ordinary day, driving a familiar route, with nothing to indicate something was awry. But just as Smith’s shift was coming to a close she noticed the warning light illuminated on the dashboard saying that there was something wrong with her brake.
Close to the end of her work duties for the day, and still having children on board that she needed to take home, Smith thought that she could make it to her next stop before inspecting the problem. She turned out to be dead wrong. She didn’t even make it one block.
“It Smells Like Smoke!”
“Miss Bus Driver, it smells like smoke!” the children exclaimed. At the time, Smith was already on the phone with the transportation company. When she looked in her side mirror, she saw the smoke and it became clear that there wasn’t any time left to wait.
The situation had escalated to becoming out of control with frightening speed. “This fire was going too fast. I had a little extinguisher,” local resident Lucy Kilin later told NBC Los Angeles in an interview following the incident. “[But] it was too late. I couldn’t do anything.”
“I Felt Scared”
By the time the fire started in the rear wheel, Smith already had the children in a single file line ready to exit the bus. Soon it became clear that the smoke was getting thicker, and the situation was becoming very serious.
“When I was smelling the smoke, it smelled like a rubber kind of gas,” said one student, Lisa Maitland. “I felt scared,” she continued. “I was about to cry, but my brother did instead, so I helped him.” The twenty children on board, all elementary school children ages four to ten, would also have their resolve tested, in what was surely a terrifying experience for them.
Keeping Cool Under Pressure
“I took off my seat belt and made sure that every one of my babies got off that bus,” Smith told reporters later. By the time young Lisa was rushing to console her brother, Smith was already in action. Trying to maintain order, she had arranged the children together, ready to exit the bus.
Calmly, she instructed the children to exit. Outside, the burning vehicle had become something of a spectacle, with locals gathered around watching, not daring to go too close. One of the nearby neighbors escorted the children to the safety of her backyard, far away from the road. But Renita had a different plan altogether.
Doing The Unthinkable
While the local neighbors and bystanders stood idly by, bewildered by the burning spectacle in the middle of their residential neighborhood, they thought that while it was horrific, at the bare minimum, the children were now safely off of the bus, and firefighters would have the blaze out in seconds.
As the black smoke billowed out of the school bus, suddenly, acting purely out of motherly instinct, driver Renita Smith rushed back into the burning bus to make sure that every single child was accounted for. She was not going to leave anything to chance.
Witnesses Were Shocked
Standing by on the scene was local resident and city council member, Fazlul Kabir, witness to how critical Smith’s actions were in saving the day. “The bus was completely destroyed by the fire,” Kabir said. “Without [Smith], the school children couldn’t be actually saved.”
He went on to say, “She went inside for the very last time. She went inside and checked each seat to see if any of the students were left there…It’s a fairly long bus actually. It’s not a small bus. She checked if everyone was out and nobody was inside…She’s brave.” Kabir was hardly the only person to take notice of Smith’s heroics.
Acting On Pure Adrenaline
Not only did her courageous action take others by surprise, but this bus driver actually surprised herself. When she saw the cell phone footage of the incident caught by one of the neighbors, she was shocked. “I’m not a firefighter, what was I doing running back into a burning bus?!” she later told reporters during an interview.
It was her own motherly instinct that took over. “Afterwards, we had a group hug, the tears started rolling, but me being mommy, I had to be strong for the babies,” she said. In fact, more than being just an ordinary driver, Smith views her job in the community as an essential one, and that kind of attitude and message is extremely important.
Having The Right Attitude
If only all of the role models in these young children’s lives could be as upstanding as Renita Smith. When asked what led her to make such a rash decision to go into a burning bus, she said, “As I’m driving that bus, they’re my babies…I’m their mom until I drop them off to their biological moms.”
The children’s parents were all extremely thankful and praised Smith for taking such quick action to save their children. While the incident itself was harrowing for everyone involved, the silver lining was that the community immediately rallied behind their new local hero, beginning an outpouring of support — one that would eventually land Renita in a Hollywood studio.
A Hometown Hero
Having witnessed the incident firsthand, Fazlul Kabir, the same man who sang Smith’s praises to reporters, took to Facebook and Twitter to tell the world about the new hometown hero. Along with the text, he posted a photograph of the wreckage, ominous evidence of what could have been a horrible tragedy had Smith not evacuated everyone to safety.
“A big thank you to our school bus driver…who just saved 20 elementary school kids from a bus fire that completely destroyed the bus,” he wrote, along with an attached picture of the vehicle completely engulfed in flames. The chilling image spoke for itself.
Going Above And Beyond To Save Her “Babies”
Although she said that it was her job to save her “babies”, Renita Smith clearly went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that her story had a happy ending. When details of the incident hit the news, viewers and readers could not get enough. Suddenly, the humble bus driver found herself as the center of attention, and the best was yet to come.
Thanks to Kabir’s post, news of Smith’s heroism had gone viral. Her story was picked up by news outlets across the country, including CNN. It even caught the attention of Hollywood producers. But before Renita Smith would get her big break on the national news, there was something even more pressing that she needed to tend to.
The Best Gift
Students and teachers from the two local elementary schools were already planning a ceremony to show their now-famous bus driver how much they appreciated her. Smith, who had not yet seen her “babies” since the incident was eager to see them, and to make sure that they were coping alright.
News crews caught Smith entering the auditorium of Glenarden Woods Elementary, where she was showered in praise by the entire student body, as well as the local high school’s marching band. The choir sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” to a teary-eyed Smith, who was simply ecstatic to see that the children’s lives had returned to normal. Then came the awards.
A Distinguished Honor
At the ceremony, the president of the Prince George County School District, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, presented a plaque to Smith for her exceptional display of courage. He told NBC Washington, “I saw the smoke and the flames, and she showed her unthinking, unflinching courage.”
In a separate ceremony, the City of College Park also honored Renita Smith with a plaque and a ceremony at City Hall that received a standing ovation. Smith was gifted with a plaque and certificate from the city mayor. And the outpouring of thanks had only just begun.
A Rose Ceremony
In a touching display of affection, each one of the children that Smith had saved came on the stage and handed her a rose to show their appreciation. Glenarden Woods Elementary School also officially declared September 28th as “Renita Smith Day”, a recognition that stands to this day.
All of the children were ecstatic to see their hero bus driver for the first time since the fire. One student, interviewed by a local news station said, “I think [she is] extremely heroic, and it was very amazing…If she [hadn’t done] that, I don’t know what would have happened.” Soon, Smith would be recognized on a much greater scale.
Renita Gets The Attention Of Hollywood
The accolades kept pouring in for Smith who, after the story was picked up by local news, was contacted by producers at The Ellen DeGeneres Show. The beloved TV personality was so touched by Smith’s story, that she invited her out to Los Angeles to share with Ellen’s audience and to experience a little moment in the spotlight.
True to Renita Smith’s style, she said that she was a bit overwhelmed by all of the praise and ‘thank yous’ but she wasn’t about to miss a chance to take a trip to California. She had never been before. In fact, producers needed to plan out the logistics to get Smith to LA. It would be her first time on a plane!
First Time Flying
“I was anxious and nervous,” Smith later said to Ellen about her experience being on a plane for the first time, in the comfort of a Burbank studio. “Everyone has different stories and they said that the takeoff was going to be the worst, but the landing for me made me really nervous.”
“I never even noticed taking off but the landing, that [was the hardest part].” Funny how a woman with enough fortitude to run into a burning bus, could be scared of an airplane! But it’s very clear that Renita Smith is no average woman, as Ellen was about to see.
Making Sure Every Single Child Made It Off Safely
Though the bus driver, true to her usual way of responding, humbly downplayed her heroic act, Ellen wasn’t going to let her acts go without heaps of praise. She summed up the situation perfectly by saying, “It wasn’t just that you made sure that everyone was off the bus…”
“You went back to make sure that every single one of them was off, [rather] than assuming they were all off. Just amazing.” But unbeknownst to Smith, Ellen had a surprise in store for her. She had heard that Smith was living paycheck to paycheck, and wanted to give her a little bit of help.
A Life-Changing Gift
For being such an exemplary part of the community, Ellen gave Smith a check for $20,000, courtesy of image publishing firm Shutterfly. Through The Ellen Show, the company offers donations to people with inspiring stories who can use a helping hand in life.
To date, the company has dished out over $2 million. Although Smith was extremely grateful to Ellen for the generous gift, something even greater was waiting for her back in Maryland. After a couple of days exploring Los Angeles, Smith hopped on her second airplane flight in her life, and headed back to the East Coast.
The Ultimate Recognition
Two people were already well aware of Renita Smith’s superpowers. For her two children, the story about their mother running inside of a burning bus to save students didn’t come as a shock; although they were admittedly shaken after seeing the pictures taken at the scene.
Smith’s son, who traveled to LA with her, was spotlighted in the audience. Soon after the bus fire, when his mom started receiving national attention, he received a text from one of his friends telling him that his mom is a hero. He promptly responded, “I know, she’s always been a hero.”
Today, Smith’s story of instantaneous and thorough heroism is still making its rounds on the Internet, and she has become somewhat of a star in her own right. She has since been interviewed as a motivational speaker and spotlighted as being an exemplary parent.
In one of her interviews, she revealed a deeply personal and painful memory that resurfaced because of the traumatic incident, “Going through [the accident] took me back to grieving because I lost a son. To give those twenty parents their babies unharmed…it melts in my heart.”
A True Passion
For those lucky enough to have met Renita Smith, they know that driving the bus isn’t just a way to make ends meet for her. She has a passion for her job and she takes being a bus driver far beyond the parameters of the job description.
She understands that she has a huge responsibility in ensuring the safety of every child that gets on board her bus. But don’t think that Miss Smith is a typical grumpy bus driver. She has an incredible ability to connect with the children, and she understands that each one of them is unique, and treats them accordingly.
Smith relishes in the added bonus of getting to meet a new group of children at the start of every school year. There’s a lesson to be learned: be grateful for what you have, and take advantage of every day.
Some drivers might lament the repetition of their routes, or having to drive children who can often be unruly and misbehaved, especially on the bus ride home from school. But not Smith! Her outlook is one to be admired. Despite all of the recognition she got, as far as she was concerned, it would all be meaningless if it weren’t for one thing.
Getting The Love From Her “Babies”
All of the praise and media attention was nice, but Smith just wanted to know one thing — as they dealt with the trauma from the accident, were her babies alright? She wanted to make sure that they were back to school, and back into their normal routines, and that they still have their smiling faces.
Asked by a reporter what he wanted to say to Miss Smith, one student gushed, “I just want to say thanks for saving my life, and my friend’s life, and everybody’s life.” Another student simply said, “I love you Miss Smith!” Certainly for Smith that’s the best recognition that she can ask for.
“I didn’t think anyone needed to thank me, or say anything to me because these are my babies, so I just did what I needed to do. That’s just me,” Smith said. Indeed, twenty students and their parents are very thankful that Renita was at the helm of the bus that day, because this ending could have been a truly lethal disaster.
In the wreckage, one of the students noticed that Smith’s steering wheel and dashboard had been reduced to ashes. Without her quick thinking and determined action, this feel good story would not exist. And it’s all thanks to one special woman.
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