Update July 9
A Steamship Authority shuttle bus caught fire Saturday just before noon at the Palmer Avenue lot in Falmouth, according to an eyewitness account. The fire started in the “tire area” of the bus, Falmouth Deputy Fire Chief Scott Thrasher said, and is not deemed suspicious.
“We believe it’s related to the right rear brakes of the vehicle,” he said.
The shuttle bus was totally engulfed in flames and a black plume of smoke was sent skyward.
According to a post on the Falmouth Police Facebook page, there were no injuries. The police department also has dramatic video of the blaze, which could be smelled in the neighborhoods surrounding the busy parking lot.
Thrasher said he did not believe the driver was able to utilize a fire extinguisher, but luckily fled the vehicle ahead of a “loud explosion” that sent metal flying. The source of the explosion was likely a tire or an airbag incorporated into the suspension system. He does not believe it was the diesel tank. Multiple explosions were reported later, which he suspected were tires.
Thrasher described the bus as “totaled.” The bus cost $142,000 in 2016, according to Steamship Authority spokesman Sean Driscoll.
Three engines responded to the blaze along with two command vehicles and a medical support truck, he said. Joint Base Cape Cod, Mashpee, and Cotuit provided station coverage for Falmouth during the incident, he added.
In all, 13 vehicles parked nearby were damaged, according to Thrasher.
Damage ranged from melted taillights and bumpers to broken windshields and worse, he said. Eight vehicles received radiant heat damage, he said, while five were “exposures” that took flames directly. Four of those five vehicles were complete losses, he said.
The Steamship Authority issued the following statement about the incident through Driscoll: “At approximately 11:40 am, a Steamship Authority bus caught fire while at the Palmer Avenue parking lot. The bus had been en route from the Palmer Avenue lot to the Thomas B. Landers Road parking lot to pick up passengers when the driver of another Steamship Authority bus alerted the driver that smoke was coming from the back of the vehicle. The driver returned to the Palmer Avenue lot and, shortly thereafter, saw the fire start on the bus.
“No passengers were on board, and the driver was able to escape the bus without injury. The bus appears to be a total loss, and as many as 15 vehicles exhibited varying degrees of damage. The Steamship Authority is working to make contact with the owners of those vehicles, and will assist them as needed.
“The bus is approximately two years old and seats 39; the Steamship Authority has 25 other shuttle buses in its fleet to maintain service.
“The Steamship Authority extends its gratitude to the Falmouth Fire Department and Falmouth Police Department for their quick response to this incident.”
Thrasher described the Steamship Authority as “great to deal with,” and said they assisted the Falmouth Fire Department from “start to finish.”
Driscoll told The Times on Monday the Steamship Authority had the bus removed Saturday afternoon. “The bus was towed to our maintenance facility at the Thomas B. Landers parking lot by All Cape Towing.”
Cars damaged by the fire were also taken to the Landers lot, he noted.
Driscoll told The Times on Wednesday the SSA has arranged nine car rentals for customers in need after the fire.
Cable-tied fire extinguisher
On the morning of June 2, a passenger on a Steamship Authority bus noticed a cable or zip tie fastened to a fire extinguisher in such a manner that it looked difficult to free the extinguisher. In light of what happened with the bus Saturday, the passenger reached out to The Times.
“It didn’t pass the smell test to me,” said the passenger, who asked to remain anonymous due to personal ties to Steamship Authority employees.
The passenger informed the bus driver that the way the extinguisher was secured “just seemed not quite right. He seemed indifferent,” the passenger said of the driver. “He just kind of shrugged.”
The passenger took a photo while the bus drove between the Palmer lot and the Woods Hole terminal. He later shared it with the Falmouth Fire Department. An official there told him the subject was the purview of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, as opposed to the fire department.
Deputy Fire Chief Timothy Small said he didn’t recall such a photo being shared with the department. However, he agreed the oversight for a bus extinguisher would not be a local fire department responsibility.
“We don’t have anything under the code for vehicles like that,” he said.
MassDOT or Massachusetts State Police truck inspectors were plausible candidates, he said. Neither could be immediately reached for comment.
Federal regulations stipulate, “The fire extinguisher(s) must be filled and located so that it is readily accessible for use. The extinguisher(s) must be securely mounted to prevent sliding, rolling, or vertical movement relative to the motor vehicle.”
“Several weeks ago, it was pointed out to one of our bus drivers that using a zip tie as shown to keep the fire extinguisher in place was against DOT regulations,” Driscoll wrote in an email. “The zip tie at no point inhibited the proper use of the extinguisher, as it was still able to be removed from its holder, and the hose was able to be freely removed should it be required to be used. The zip tie was removed at that point; we have verified today that no other buses have extinguishers that have zip ties on them in this manner.”
The bus destroyed by fire was No. 1, while the bus with the cable-tied extinguisher was believed by the passenger to be No. 3.
Rich Saltzberg contributed to this report. Updated with more details from Falmouth Fire Dept. -Ed.