Yesterday was my first time taking Megabus, a discount intercity bus service that began in 2006 and quickly gained notoriety for advertising fares as low as $1 each way. Yesterday was also the first time I had to evacuate a bus as it was catching fire.
I was just closing my eyes when we pulled over to the side of the interstate 50 minutes into the trip from Chicago to Milwaukee. I hadn’t noticed that there was a problem, but others, like a fellow passenger, Lauren Wurdinger, said they smelled the burning coming from the bus almost immediately. The driver got out, re-entered the bus a few minutes later, and we drove on. Minutes later, we stopped again and the driver exited again; we eventually continued. Finally, he announced on the intercom that we were turning around because we had to “switch buses.”
A groan of incredulity swept through the bus. I started tweeting updates. Why would we turn around, people asked, when we were so close to Milwaukee? (It’s about a 90-mile trip.) We turned off the interstate and began heading back toward Chicago down a smaller highway. Within minutes, there was a loud bang from the back of the bus. People leapt up from their seats. Some were cursing, some got on their phones.
We pulled over and the driver got on the intercom: It’s just a flat tire, he said, and there’s no need to panic and no need to curse. He exited the bus and we all sat there for a few minutes, dumbfounded. One passenger, Kenny Wagner, said nothing like this had happened in the dozens of times he’d taken Megabus. The bus began to smoke, and as it got thicker, we evacuated.
Outside, the driver was fishing out baggage. There was a small fire coming out from one of the wheels on the other side. The fire grew quickly and, within minutes, had spread throughout the back of the bus. People got away as quickly as they could, abandoning their bags. The driver remained, trying to put out the flames with a small fire extinguisher.
Suddenly, there was a series of pops followed by several loud booms, and flames completely consumed the back half of the bus. Alexei O’Brien, a student at the University of St. Thomas, was despondent, yelling to someone on the phone, “I lost all my schoolwork and textbooks. What am I supposed to do?”
Many people, I learned, lost a considerable amount of personal property. Some, like Ms. Wurdinger, felt lucky that they’d lost only clothes. “I have my laptop here with me, thank God,” she said. Others, like Darnell McKinney, lost considerably more. “I was moving from St. Louis to Milwaukee,” Mr. McKinney said. “I had my whole life under that bus: iPad, iPhone, clothes, leather jacket, Social Security card, birth certificates. I ain’t got a pair of socks now, man; I ain’t got a pair of drawers.”
This isn’t the worst fate to befall Megabus passengers. It has had, in its relatively brief existence, several high-profile accidents. In 2010, a double-decker Megabus crashed into a railroad overpass in upstate New York, killing four on the top deck. In 2014, 26 passengers were hurt when a Megabus rolled over near Seymour, Ind. And in 2015, 19 were injured when a Megabus traveling from Chicago to Atlanta crashed.
I had chosen Megabus for the same reason most choose it: the price. While I didn’t snag a $1 fare, I paid $11, plus a booking fee, for a ticket from Chicago to Milwaukee. An Amtrak ticket would have cost $25: not a bad savings. Unfortunately, though, low prices sometimes come with other costs.
We were eventually picked up by another double-decker Megabus and continued our journey to Milwaukee. It seemed slightly cruel — and ironic — to be picked up by the same manner of transport that had just burst into flames, but there was no other option presented. On the way, there was a discussion about responsibility. “This was not the driver’s fault,” Russicha Watkins said emphatically. “He was doing his best and trying to help us and save our luggage. Another passenger, Michelle Grant, said, “They never should have made him turn around and go back to Chicago. They knew something was wrong with that bus. That was stupid.”
Another hotly discussed topic among the passengers was that of reimbursement. Several people called up Megabus’s terms and conditions on their phones. It unfortunately states: “Our maximum liability to you for any loss or damage to your luggage is US $250 per passenger for any such loss or damage to luggage, and megabus.com will only be responsible to reimburse passengers up to the maximum liability limit in the event of negligence on the part of megabus.com.” That information caused quite a bit of distress. “I’m just devastated,” said Alice Taylor, who estimated she lost $1,700 worth of belongings in the fire, including a laptop.
Deandre Bea said this was the second time he’d had luggage lost or destroyed on a Megabus. The first time, he said, he got frustrated trying to get compensation and eventually gave up. That was a reality check for me. I may choose Megabus to save a few bucks but many of my fellow passengers ride Megabus because it’s all that they can afford. And many lack the legal or financial resources to pursue the company for fair compensation for lost items.
So my takeaway is this: While you shouldn’t expect your bus to become a ball of flames, it is, sadly, necessary to be prepared. Carry irreplaceable things with you, if possible. Some credit cards, like American Express, offer baggage insurance if you purchase the ticket with the card. Most important, be safe. No belonging is worth injury or death. We were lucky that no one was hurt on our bus; this is largely because everyone was wise enough to abandon their belongings when things got dangerous.