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Police: 24 dead after bus fleeing Rita catches fire

Nursing home residents were leaving Houston



Hurricane Rita

DALLAS, Texas (CNN) -- A bus carrying elderly evacuees from a nursing home near Houston, Texas, caught fire and exploded Friday south of Dallas, killing at least 24 people and jamming a key evacuation route for people fleeing Hurricane Rita.

Dallas County Sheriff's Sgt. Don Peritz said 14 to 15 people were able to escape the bus.

"We believe, at this point, we have 24 [bodies] remaining on the bus," said Peritz. (Watch police describe bus fire tragedy -- 3:38)

Rita was expected to reach landfall somewhere near the Texas-Louisiana border Friday or early Saturday, the National Hurricane Center said. (Full story)

In Bellaire, Texas, the Brighton Gardens nursing home issued a statement saying, "A charter bus evacuating 38 residents and six team members from Brighton Gardens of Bellaire, near Houston, was involved in a tragic incident near Dallas at approximately 6:45 a.m. Central Time, resulting in multiple deaths. We are in the process of contacting family members."

'Shocked and saddened'

In the statement, Paul Klaassen, founder, chairman and CEO of Sunrise Senior Living, the operator of the facility, said, "Sunrise has been devastated by this tragedy. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the residents involved in this unfortunate incident.

"Our primary concern is for the safety of our residents and we are shocked and saddened that this event occurred during our evacuation. We are fully cooperating with authorities investigating this incident to determine its cause."

The incident blocked northbound lanes of Interstate 45 at Wilmer, a Dallas suburb. Authorities said traffic was diverted from Interstate 45 south of the accident scene. (Watch video of motorists coping with traffic fleeing Rita -- 2:18)

Sgt. Peritz said the fire may have been started by a brake that ignited.

The bus pulled to the roadside and passengers were getting off when a series of explosions went off.

"We believe the explosions were related to a series of oxygen canisters that were onboard," Peritz said.

He added, "Fourteen or 15 persons were evacuated off the bus before it became fully involved."

Peritz said the driver survived and was attempting to help sheriff's deputies who were getting people off the bus when the explosions occurred.

A short time after the incident, all that was left of the bus was a charred skeleton.

A nurse, Tina Jones, said she was driving behind the bus when she saw it start to smoke. When it caught fire, she stopped to help.

"They saw I was a nurse so they waved me on through and asked help to triage patients. I came up to the scene and they were about 14 patients on the service road," said Jones.

"Lots of cuts, burns, bruises, smoke ventilation. Lots of people looking for their spouses and friends, wanting to get in touch with family members. A lot of people afraid the person next to them didn't make it off. It was pretty emotional."

'I thought I was on fire'

Another good Samaritan who tried to help was Irma Camponella, who said she and her husband were in traffic behind the bus when she saw "the wheel on fire."

She told CNN, "I wondered if they knew, because no one was getting off." Camponella said she and her husband pulled off the road behind the bus. When her husband entered the bus, she said, he saw elderly people, many lying on the floor and unable to walk.

She and her husband, she said, helped three workers carry 12 people off the bus as it filled with black smoke. She said many of the people had to be dragged off the bus.

Camponella said she had stepped off the bus and turned away when it exploded. "I thought I was on fire," she said.

At Parkland Hospital, where nine of the survivors were taken, one patient was in critical condition with smoke inhalation. A doctor treating the patients said one told him that the bus had stopped and a tire was changed.

He quoted the survivor as saying that a car pulled alongside, signaling to the bus driver that there was smoke around the back wheels and the bus driver then pulled over prior to the fire and explosion.

In Bellaire, Mayor Cindy Siegel said the bus was one of two that had left the nursing facility loaded with evacuees.

She said that Sunrise Senior Living was following its evacuation plan for the home, trying to move its residents away from the threat of Hurricane Rita.

Siegel said the evacuees were residents who had no family members in the immediate area able to pick them up.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team to Dallas to investigate the incident.

CNN's Randi Kaye contributed to this report.

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