A DS Bus Lines driver, Roger Smith, kept Piper High School choir students safe when they found themselves in the middle of a severe weather outbreak in Wichita on April 29.
The Piper students were going to a choir competition, and Smith navigated around multiple tornadoes in the Wichita area, including a massive EF-3 tornado that caused extensive damage in Andover, Kansas.
Smith was driving south on I-35 towards Wichita, with a bus loaded with 30 students that were members of the Bella Voce and Music’N’Motion varsity choirs from Piper High School. They were on their way to the State Solo and Ensemble Contest.
About 40 miles out from Wichita, the weather began to turn sour, including heavy rain and intense wind. Choir Director Shelly Cole received communication from her colleagues who were already at their hotel in Wichita that tornadoes were confirmed in the area, and that hotel guests had been evacuated to severe weather shelters.
As weather conditions continued to deteriorate on the interstate, Smith did everything he could to try to keep the bus steady, but the ride was shaky enough that some students started to exhibit motion sickness symptoms.
Near the El Dorado, Kansas, turnpike exit (about 18 miles northeast of Andover), the decision was made to try to pull the bus over and seek shelter. But they didn’t have any luck accessing the roadside shelters, so they were forced to attempt to navigate around the severe weather and find shelter elsewhere.
As Smith stayed laser-focused on keeping the bus on the road, tornado warning alerts buzzed across multiple devices in the bus. This indicated that a tornado had been reported nearby. Cole enlisted the help of students Brody Lanter, senior; Jackson Morgan, sophomore; and Brylee Pryz, junior, to assist in monitoring weather radar apps, and navigating Smith to alternative options to seek shelter.
The students found a nearby Walmart, and gave turn-by-turn instructions to Smith to guide him as the bus rattled violently around them. Navigating during this time was particularly challenging because electricity in the area was spotty, and many street lights were inoperable. Upon arriving at the El Dorado Walmart, Smith and Cole ensured that all the students made it safely inside before parking the bus.
After the all-clear was given in El Dorado, Smith, Cole, and the choir students made the final leg of their trip into Wichita, with no injuries reported.
“I have been the choir director at Piper for 22 years, and have been teaching for 27 years. This is hands down the scariest thing I have experienced,” Cole recalled.
Smith was grateful for Cole, and the students that helped him get everyone to safety: “They were calm as a cucumber.”
He also remarked on how impressed he was with the bus’s durability: “I’d like to say thank you to Thomas for designing and manufacturing such a strong machine. That bus really took a beating that day, but it held up well.” Smith was driving a Thomas Saf-T-Liner® C2 School Bus during the trip.
Smith, Cole, and the three students who helped navigate were all honored at the May 9 Piper School District school board meeting. Superintendent Dr. Jessica Dain declared, “On behalf of the Piper School District, we want to commend our community heroes, and thank them for their service to the community.”
“At DS Bus, our core values are family, safety, service, and respect,” John Schueler, DS Bus Lines director of safety and training, said. “Our driver Mr. Smith exemplified all four of those values during this experience, especially safety. We never want to hear stories of students getting in harm’s way, but we’re glad in this instance that Mr. Smith, Mrs. Cole, and those brave students kept cool heads and found the way to avoid danger.”
Smith served in the U.S. Air Force for six years, as an electrician for 30 years, and has been driving buses for more than 10- years. He has lived in Kansas most of his life and is no stranger to severe weather.