Hickory Flat Boy Scout Troop 4056 was headed back to Cherokee County when the bus carrying most of the 46-member troop caught fire — for still unknown reasons — on Interstate 75 in Cartersville, said Dan McNeal, assistant scoutmaster.
McNeal said the troop was coming back from a week-long camp near Kingston, Tenn. Thanks — in large part — to the boys’ quick reactions, he said all of the Scouts, who range from 10 to 16 years old, are fine, as are the adults who were onboard.
“All their preparation they do all the time for Boy Scouts really kicked in,” Strickland said Monday.
The incident started at about 12:30 p.m. when the bus driver was trying to drive up a hill near the Highway 20 exit on the interstate.
“It just kept decelerating,” said Assistant Scoutmaster David Strickland. “Everything was absolutely happy until that 30-second window.”
The driver looked in her rearview mirror and saw flames pouring from the back of the bus, which belongs to Hickory Flat United Methodist Church, where the troop is based. According to the church, there had been no issues with the bus before.
When Strickland got wind of what was happening, he screamed out to the Scouts to, “Grab all your stuff!” and the kids — some of whom were sleeping — followed his instructions, as the driver pulled over.
Seconds later, everyone was out on the side of Interstate 75, standing along the tree line.
“I guess the amazing part is nobody cried,” Strickland said. “Everybody moved very, very quickly — followed instructions. They stood up, got their stuff and got off the bus. They were completely calm. It was only three or four minutes later when they’re in the shade, it started hitting everybody (that) we could have died.”
Michael Hofmann and Alex Vernachio, both 16-year-old Scouts, were credited by the Assistant Scoutmasters for their actions. He said the cabin was full of smoke, but there was no real panic or fear — at least until the boys got off the bus.
“When it came to our new Scouts — our younger kids — they were calm until they got off the bus,” Hofmann said Monday. “We had some of them start freaking out. We were able to get them away from the bus and comfort them, told them it was all OK.”
The Scouts were taken to a nearby fast food restaurant as the troop leaders took care of everything on the scene and tried to arrange another way home. Some of the boys were taken by Bartow County fire workers. Others hitched a ride on a passing bus full high school girls from Locus Grove, leaders said.
About that time, John Vernachio, Alex’s father, was waiting with about a dozen other parents at Publix on East Cherokee Drive for the boys to show up. The parents were assured everyone was fine. Within minutes, the parents with larger cars headed west to shuttle the boys home, he said.
The father described the scene at the grocery store as calm — with no real panic — just as the scene on Interstate 75 was described.
For John Vernachio, it was clear the boys’ training with the Boy Scouts paid off.
“It’s amazing when you watch the kids grow up from 11-years-old to these 16- and 17-year-old boys who have this kind of experience and training in Boy Scouts,” he said. “To see them actually put it in practice in a real-life situation — it’s very gratifying, and we’re very proud of the boys.”
McNeal said some of the Scouts seemed to realize how important their training had been after they made it off the bus.
“Once we got the boys off to the tree line — and I kept counting them over and over and asked them if they had their water — one of the young boys goes, ‘Mr. McNeal, is this why you always ask us if we have our water bottles?’” McNeal said. “This is why you do it. It becomes second nature.”