Like a firefighting superhero, Bellevue Fire Department inspector Hugo Sotelo whipped off his jacket — exposing his uniform underneath — to expedite the evacuation of a Sound Transit bus that had burst into flames on I-405. All passengers were safe.
When a Sound Transit bus caught fire Wednesday morning, passengers were lucky to have an expert on board.
Hugo Sotelo, a Bellevue Fire Department inspector, was one of 30 passengers riding the Route 566 bus on its Auburn to Overlake route.
“I couldn’t believe the odds,” said Sotelo, that a fire inspector would be on a bus that ignited.
Sotelo, seated near the driver, heard a loud pop from the back of the bus around 6:40 a.m. as it headed northbound on Interstate 405.
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“It sounded like the tire going,” he said. “Everybody heard it that wasn’t asleep.”
The bus driver pulled the bus to the shoulder just past exit 11 near Interstate 90, went to check the tires and then began an evacuation.
“He got out of the rig, realized the severity and got everyone out,” said Sotelo, who called 911 once he’d exited the bus.
Soon, “there were flames going from underneath the wheel well and going upward into the bus.”
That’s when Sotelo’s know-how came into play.
“I know the severity and what the fire can do,” said Sotelo, who inspects buildings for fire prevention and investigates fires. “I had to get them out of there.”
Passing drivers trying to help brought fire extinguishers.
“Those little extinguishers aren’t going to do it,” Sotelo said.
Passengers took out their cellphones and started to film the fire curling up from the wheel well and making calls about interrupted travel plans.
But Sotelo noticed signs that the fire was venting, which can occur when fuel or oxygen escape, accelerating the flames.
“When I saw venting, I had to get people even farther back,” Sotelo said. “Pressure’s pressure, and if it’s going to explode, it will.”
That’s when Sotelo realized it was time for a costume change.
“I just wear a normal jacket” when riding the bus, Sotelo said. “When I took off my jacket and my uniform was beneath, then people started listening.”
He pushed the 30 or so passengers about 50 feet back before flames reached a height of about 15 to 20 feet. Flames began shooting about 6 feet sideways from the bus on the driver’s side.
State Patrol troopers soon were on scene. Two firefighting engines and a ladder truck doused the flames.
Sound Transit’s Route 566 is operated by Pierce Transit.
The driver, David Moseley, has been with Pierce Transit for nearly 15 years, according to Rebecca Japhet, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Without Moseley’s quick action, Sotelo said, passengers could have been hurt.
“I do commend the bus driver for being calm and getting everybody out. If you get everyone in a panic situation to exit, it can be hazardous,” he said.
“Who knows what could have happened?”