WEB UPDATE: Small fire is fourth accident for Mount Vernon Shuttle

Posted Wednesday, April 13, 2:09 a.m. The Mount Vernon Shuttle service had its fourth accident since July on Tuesday, when an electrical malfunction caused a driver’s seat to smolder. No one suffered injuries in the accident, which forced the evacuation of more than 20 passengers onto a highway.

“I thought it was going to blow up,” freshman Ashley Sekhon told a Hatchet reporter as she stepped off the shuttle. “I thought there was an emergency exit in the back of the bus, but there wasn’t. Everyone kept yelling to go out the back but there wasn’t an exit.”

After noticing smoke by her feet, the driver pulled over under the E Street tunnel on the Whitehurst Freeway at about 12:40 p.m. The driver started to scream for students to evacuate the bus, and in a panic, the students pushed to get out the front exit. The bus was en route to Foggy Bottom.

“I don’t think anybody really knows how to work the emergency windows either,” freshman Anu Devabhaktunl said.

Robert Snyder, director of Mount Vernon Campus Life, said there are typically three exits on the shuttles – the driver’s door, the main door where the passengers board and a rear emergency exit. He said some shuttles have emergency window exits in the rear as opposed to doors. He was unaware of the type of rear exit on the shuttle involved in Tuesday’s incident.

Another shuttle on the same route was able to pick up passengers on E Street, right off of the Whitehurst Freeway, and escort them safely back to campus.

The “random electrical malfunction” was caused by an umbrella that was jammed under the driver’s seat and came into contact with wires, said Matt Nehmer, the University’s assistant director of media relations. He said students should not be concerned with riding shuttles because the service contractor, International Limousine Services, has a multi-tier inspection system.

Both Sekhon and Devabhaktunl said they had been in a shuttle accident last semester and that they think there is a problem with the Mount Vernon service.

Two other shuttle fires have occurred since last summer – one bus burst into flames because of a wiring problem in late August; in July, smoke in the cabin of a bus forced students and a driver to evacuate. Additionally, in September, a bus overran a ledge on the Mount Vernon Campus because of driver error. No injuries were reported in any of the accidents.

Mount Vernon Campus Life assumed control of the shuttle service from University Police in fall 2004. International Limousine Services declined to comment on Tuesday’s incident, as it has with previous accidents.

“This was an isolated incident unrelated to anything that has happened in the past,” Snyder said. “We stand by International and their drivers.”

University Police officers were summoned to the scene Tuesday, and the D.C. fire department was also called as a precautionary measure, but it did not respond. Snyder said the driver put out the fire, and Alan Etter, a fire department spokesperson, said that he had not heard of the incident.

Nehmer said the “overall shuttle service was not disrupted,” and none of the passengers involved in the incident were held up. He explained that shuttles undergo a lengthy inspection process, which includes check-ups every 7,000 miles in addition to the twice-a-year evaluations by both the Washington D.C. Department of Transportation and the Maryland Public Service Commission.

Drivers are also told to inspect their shuttles for any possible problems throughout the day; at the end of their shift they do a post-trip report.

“During the day, if anything comes up, the driver reports it,” Nehmer said. “Even if it’s just a broken windshield wiper.”

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