Renita Smith had no thoughts for her own safety when she dashed onto a flaming school bus in Baltimore, Maryland. Instead, her only concern was for the 20 young children onboard on that day in September 2016. And it was an act of bravery that caught the attention of Ellen DeGeneres. When the talk show host learned about the mom of two’s lifestyle, though, she was left in shock.
As the bus driver, Smith naturally felt that the young kids were her responsibility until she got them home from school. Moreover, having two children herself, her maternal instinct took over, and she had to double-check that no one had been left behind after emptying the bus.
But although Smith felt that she was merely doing what anyone else would have done, others saw her bravery for what it was. Images of the school bus inferno circulated around the internet, and news outlets spoke of the driver’s bravery. She was then hailed a hero by students and the public alike as her story began to spread. And one particular admirer penned a post that would go viral.
Yes, City of College Park council member Fazlul Kabir published a post on Facebook that month – complete with photos of the burned-out bus. And alongside these devastating images, a video of the inferno was shared. The footage had been captured on the dashcam of a volunteer firefighter and was subsequently shared to news outlets. So, with all of this media attention, naturally it wasn’t long before the story caught the attention of DeGeneres.
However, there was something about Smith that wouldn’t impress DeGeneres. When the TV host learned of the heroic bus driver’s background, you see, she discovered some facts about her life that she found pretty appalling. And so, DeGeneres invited the mom of two onto her show to try and make things right.
But when Smith first started out as a school bus driver back in 2014, she likely never imagined that she would end up gracing DeGeneres’ famous couch. Living in Upper Marlboro, Maryland – around 20 miles south-east of Washington, D.C. – Smith’s daily bus routes serve the area’s Prince George’s County Public Schools.
However, driving isn’t merely a way to make ends meet for Smith: it’s also a passion. She loves what she does and embraces the chance to meet new pupils, sharing a bond with each of those who board her bus. And as a mom herself, the driver understands the great weight of responsibility that she carries.
Of course, it can be worrisome for parents sending their young children out into the world beyond their immediate supervision. But mother-of-two Smith knows their concerns only too well. In fact, she treats all the students she drives to school as if they were her own – until she drops them safely back home at the end of the school day.
So when trouble struck on a Monday evening in September 2016, Smith’s maternal instincts kicked in, and she knew exactly what she needed to do. The driver was on her regular route, dropping kids home from Glenarden Woods Elementary School and the Robert Goddard Elementary School, when she spotted something odd in the side rearview mirror.
Smith was driving the children back to their homes in the College Park area of Maryland – near the D.C. border northeast of Washington. It was shortly before 5:00 p.m., and the driver had made the third drop-off of her last group of students for the day. But as Smith prepared to head to the next stop, a warning light showed up on her dashboard.
Apparently, the brake light had lit up, alerting Smith to some sort of mechanical issue with the vehicle. The experienced driver figured that she could probably make it safely to the next drop off before checking out what the problem might be. But events unfolded much more quickly than she could have imagined.
You see, Smith did in fact set off for the next drop-off point that was a block or two away. But she only made it as far as the next stop sign. And at this point, the kids – aged from four to nine years old – became agitated. They could smell something burning, and they quickly alerted the bus driver.
In 2016 Smith spoke about the events in more detail during her interview with DeGeneres. She said, “I got maybe to the next stop sign, and my babies [said], ‘Miss bus driver, we smell smoke.’”
As Smith brought the bus to a stop, she could hear a warning signal blaring. And as she described to Today in 2016, “We didn’t see the smoke, but we could smell it… And the smell – I can’t explain it – was horrible, and the kids were saying, ‘Ms. Bus Driver, the bus is smoking.’” Naturally, the woman realized then that the situation was urgent.
In fact, Smith knew that she had to call the issue in to the transportation manager. But as the bus driver reached for the radio, she happened to glance in the rear-facing side mirror. And in it, she could see exactly where the burning smell was coming from.
Smith told Today, “When I picked up the radio and I looked through my side rearview mirror, I saw the fire.” It was then that the seriousness of the situation became apparent. The bus driver knew there was no time to waste, and her maternal instincts kicked into overdrive. And, thankfully, her smart “babies” already knew just what to do.
Yes, when they saw the fire, the elementary schoolers formed a single file line ready to get off the bus. And Smith herself also acted swiftly when she spotted flames in the mirror. She explained to Today, “I unbuckled my safety belt, I opened the door and got my babies off that bus.”
Luckily, the bus was parked in a residential area, meaning neighbors were on hand to help. And as soon as local residents saw what was happening, a number of them rushed to assist, escorting the children away from the burning bus to safety. Smith, however, was worried about whether all of the kids had made it off the vehicle. What if, God forbid, someone had been left behind?
And so, Smith outlined what had happened next in her interview with DeGeneres. She said, “The neighbors jumped in and got the babies to a safe haven, and then I ran back into the bus, because I had to make sure all of my babies were accounted for.”
While everyone else had been making their way to safety, then, Smith had run back onto the bus. And although the vehicle had been rapidly filling with noxious fumes and smoke, the bus driver had taken the time to check every seat until she was satisfied that the vehicle was clear. Happy that no one had been left behind, then, she had to get herself to safety.
After Smith had checked the final seat at the rear of the bus, she turned and ran back toward the door. And it seems that the bus driver had timed her exit perfectly: as she reached the last step to safety, the coach suddenly became entirely engulfed in flames behind her. But Smith had no concern for herself – only the children whose lives had been entrusted to her.
Incredibly, Smith explained that she’d been unaware of the danger she’d put herself in until she saw footage of the inferno. Then, as soon as everyone had caught their breaths from the ordeal, the magnitude of what they had been through became apparent. After all, the raging fire – though contained to the bus – was already burning intensely.
“This fire was going too fast. I had a little extinguisher,” resident Lucy Kilin told NBC Los Angeles in 2016. “[But] it was too late. I couldn’t do anything.” All onlookers could do, in fact, was watch the smoke billowing skyward and flames consuming the school bus until first responders arrived.
Footage of the inferno was captured on the dashboard camera of a volunteer firefighter on the scene, showing a pillar of thick black smoke rising up from the school bus as flames leap from its roof and windows. And the emergency responder can be heard saying over the radio that the bus was “fully engulfed.”
Looking back at the video of the blaze, Smith herself was overwhelmed by what had happened. She explained to DeGeneres, “That’s what brought tears and emotions: the ‘what ifs.’ And I didn’t know [the fire] was that bad until [I watched the video].” Nevertheless, thanks in part to Smith’s quick thinking, the children were all unharmed in the incident.
Council member and university professor Fazlul Kabir later posted images of the burned-out bus to Facebook – and shared some words of praise for Smith. He added, “A big thank you to our school bus driver… who just saved 20 elementary school kids from a bus fire that completely destroyed the bus.”
Kabir – whose message was accompanied by a picture showing the charred remains of the bus – continued, “Not only [did Smith take] each one of the 20 kids from the bus one by one, [but she] also went [back] again into the empty bus while it was still burning. Thankfully, all the school kids went home safe.”
Kabir continued describing events in an interview with ABC in 2016. He said, “Without [Smith], the school children [wouldn’t have been] saved… She went inside for the very last time. She went inside and checked each seat to see if any of the students were left there… It’s a fairly long bus actually. It’s not a small bus. She checked if everyone was out, and nobody was inside… She’s brave.”
And one of the bus’ young passengers told NBC Washington in 2016 what she thought of the driver’s actions, saying, “I think it was extremely heroic, and it was very amazing… If she [hadn’t done] that, I don’t know what would have happened.” The children were later picked up by grateful parents at the scene of the fire.
Another student rescued from the school bus was Lisa Maitland, who told WJLA-TV that she wasn’t aware of what was happening until someone shouted, “Fire!” She said, “When I was smelling the smoke, it smelled like a rubber kind of gas.” However, when the elementary schooler grew concerned about the situation, she had an important distraction.
“I felt scared,” Maitland continued. “I was about to cry, but my brother did instead, so I helped him.” But, by all accounts, it seems that a calm and methodical approach to evacuating the burning school bus saved many lives that day. Furthermore, Smith’s bravery was later recognized by the whole school.
Yes, Glenarden Woods Elementary School realized that Smith had gone above and beyond her role, so in her honor it named September 28, 2016, Renita Smith Day. Hundreds of students attended a party held in Smith’s honor to thank her for her bravery, and they cheered as the mom-of-two walked in.
Smith was overwhelmed as she was met by hundreds of students, carrying banners that read, “Thank you!” And the bus driver was even thrown her own personal performance by the school choir, with the nearby DuVal High School Marching Tigers band also in attendance.
Smith then wept as the students she had rescued from the burning bus each handed her a rose. A plaque was unveiled in her honor by CEO of the school district, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, too. He told NBC Washington, “I saw the smoke and the flames, and she showed her unthinking, unflinching courage.”
But the accolades didn’t end there for Smith: after the story was picked up by local news, it spread to the national channels. And in time, news of Smith’s heroism reached the office of The Ellen DeGeneres Show – and so the beloved TV personality invited the bus driver onto her program for her moment in the spotlight.
Yet DeGeneres was shocked when she learned how Smith lived her life. The bus driver, you see, was actually living on the breadline while supporting a teenage son and young daughter. In fact, Smith’s moment on the Burbank, California-based Ellen was the first time that she’d ever flown.
Talking of her kids, Smith told Today, “It scared them a little once they saw the pictures, but they’ve been awesome: they are always supportive of their mom.” And although she may not wear a cape, to her kids, Smith is no less of a superhero.
Moreover, Smith explained to DeGeneres, “My son, one of his friends texted him and [said], ‘Your mom is a hero!’ And [he said], ‘My mom has always been a hero.’” Of course, DeGeneres was in agreement, and to make Smith’s life a little easier, she presented her with a gift.
Yes, DeGeneres handed Smith a check for $20,000 as a reward for her bravery. The money was a gift from image publishing firm Shutterfly, which, through The Ellen Show, offer donations to people with inspiring stories who perhaps need a helping hand in life. According to its website, the company has handed out around $2 million to date.
But Smith has continued to play down the heroism that she showed that day. As she explained to ABC News, “When I’m driving [you], you’re my children until I drop you off to your biological parents. I have to handle each child with care – as a mommy would her own – so that’s what I did. That’s what I hope any human being would do for any child.”