There is a huge responsibility on any parent to keep their kids safe. And as those kids grow up and go to school, that same responsibility falls on the shoulders of others. So when a warning light flashed on the dash and a fire started raging in the back of her bus, this driver’s only thought was to step up and get those kids out alive, regardless of her own safety.
Single mother-of-two Renita Smith has worked as a school bus driver in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, since 2014. And one evening in September 2016, Smith was doing her usual round with her last group of school kids for the day.
The round had been routine until Smith reached her third drop-off. And it was then that she noticed a warning light on her dash – the brake light had started flashing. However, thinking little of it, she continued to the next stop. But she wouldn’t reach it.
Because by the time she had pulled up to the next stop sign, the children – aged between four and 10 – were warning her that they could smell smoke. Aware that she had to act quickly, Smith immediately pulled over and picked up her mic to call it in. Before she could do so, however, the bus went up in flames.
Seeing flames engulfing the bus, then, Smith sprung into action. She later told News 4, “I opened my door, took off my seat belt and I got my babies off that bus.” Indeed, one by one, she led the children single-file off the bus and to safety. But Smith wasn’t satisfied yet.
As neighbors became alerted to the situation, they stepped in to offer the children a safe haven. Consequently, most people in Smith’s situation would lead the children to safety and then simply count their blessings. But Smith was worried that one of the children – or her “babies” as she calls them – may have fallen asleep on a seat.
Without any hesitation, Smith ran back onto the blazing bus. Confronted with a wall of thick black smoke, she then checked every single seat to make absolutely sure everyone was off safely. And as she reached the last step to exit the bus, it was completely engulfed in flames.
But it wasn’t until Smith later saw footage of the inferno that she realized just how serious the fire had been. Shellshocked at how quickly the blaze had taken hold and how intensely it burned, she broke down at the idea of what could have happened had she not acted so quickly.
“That’s what brought the tears and the emotions, because the ‘what if’s,” Smith told Media 24. “I didn’t know it was that bad until after.” But footage from a dashboard camera belonging to a volunteer firefighter who arrived at the scene showed just how intense the fire was.
Some students hadn’t been aware of what was happening until someone shouted. For example, Lisa Maitland – a student who had been on the bus and could smell the smoke – later told WJLA-TV. “I felt scared. I was about to cry but my brother did instead, so I helped him,” she added.
Bystander Fazlul Kabir saw the smoke and immediately went to help. He later told ABC News, “The bus was completely destroyed. Without [Smith], the school children couldn’t be actually saved. She went inside and checked each seat to see if any of the students were left there. She’s brave.”
Additionally, one youngster who had been on the bus told NBC Washington, “I think it was extremely heroic and it was very amazing. If she didn’t do that, I don’t know what would have happened.” Incredibly, no one was even slightly injured as a result of the inferno.
Indeed, Smith’s act of heroism was not lost on the students involved. The school, Glenarden Woods Elementary, named a day in her honor and threw a party as a way to thank her for her bravery. Had she not been so selflessly courageous, the outcome could have been very different.
So when Smith entered the school auditorium to cheers from the students and a sea of signs emblazoned simply with the words, “Thank You,” she was amazed by the gesture. Moreover, the DuVal High School Marching Tigers performed in her honor while a choir serenaded her. Overwhelmed by the outpouring of gratitude, Smith was visibly touched.
The students who had been caught in the inferno then each presented Smith with a rose. Furthermore, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, chief executive of the school district, also gave her a plaque. He said, “I saw the smoke and the flames, and she showed her unthinking, unflinching courage.” However, the recognition of Smith’s heroism didn’t just end there.
The image of the thick black smoke billowing from the blazing vehicle caught the attention of not just local news, but media outlets around the country and even around the world. Indeed, the story has subsequently been featured on channels and websites such as CNN, Today and even Business Insider in the United Kingdom.
Smith’s most amazing moment, however, probably came when she was invited to appear on The Ellen Show. Not only did she experience her first ever plane ride in order to make her appearance, but she was also in for a huge surprise at the end of her interview.
After speaking about her experience, Smith told host Ellen DeGeneres and the audience a little about her own family. As a single mother of two to an 18-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, she has always been something of a superhero to her kids. And it was then that Smith was given the surprise of her life.
In association with printing company Shutterfly, Smith was given a check for $20,000 in recognition of her bravery. DeGeneres said, “Shutterfly wants to help people who care about their community. This is the inspiring story we are talking about.”
Despite all the acclaim, however, Smith herself has played down her heroism. She modestly told Media 24, “I didn’t even think, I just ran in. My biggest reward is my babies are safe. Whenever I’m driving any school bus, they’re my children until I drop them to their parents. I’m just a mom. I did what moms do.”