Packed Casino Charter Bus Bursts Into Flames - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

3/22/05-Henderson County

Packed Casino Charter Bus Bursts Into Flames

A bus was full of casino-bound senior citizens and others hoping luck would be on their side in Bossier City. But it took just moments for that bus to erupt in flames. The Clark Travel tour bus was headed from Temple to Bossier City, Louisiana.

On Highway 31 in Henderson County -- between Murchison and Brownsboro -- folks onboard heard an explosion. The tire had blown out, and the bus had caught on fire.

Forty-six people, plus the driver, were on board. Three passengers went to the hospital because of minor smoke inhalation, but were soon released. Passengers say the quick, but calm, actions of the bus driver and their fellow riders kept this from turning into a tragedy. Tonight, the three who inhaled smoke and went to the hospital have headed home, but the others continued on.

"The good Lord watched over us today. He was with us," said one passenger.

They were stuck in Athens for a time, but anxious for their trip to casino fun to continue.

"We left everything else, but we grabbed our purse and our money," said Leola Roccato of Temple.

But when that tire blew out, and the bus began to burn, their day trip was furthest from their minds.

"Then here all of the sudden, here is all this smoke. And then the fire," said Preble Leonard.

Roger Pearson was in the driver's seat.

"I could see the flames already underneath, so with that, a fire extinguisher isn't going to do you any good. I said the first thing I need to do was get those people off," Pearson said.

Preble says, "He got up and said 'Everybody, get out quick!'"

Riders had to run away across the mud and wet grass, but that's all right. They say had Pearson pulled the bus off the road quickly, that could have caused it to flip.

"If he had we would have gone off [the road], the ground was soft and the bus would have turned over, and we would have all been trapped in there," Leola says.

They grabbed what they could. "Most of us left all our stuff on there. I left my mother's afghan that she had crocheted for me, and that's what I hate," Preble says.

But they feel so lucky to have made it. And with their money, and still a smile, they'll be trying their luck tonight in Bossier City.

"Somebody said that God didn't want us to go up [and gamble, and] that was the reason that happened. I still want to go!"

The tour bus is from Clark Travel, based in Manor, Texas, near Austin. The company says it's a fairly new coach -- a 2003 model -- and had just undergone its regular round of preventive maintenance.

Reported by Morgan Palmer.

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