“The most difficult, gut-punching events I covered:” Memories remain 20 years after “The bus fire”

I was chatting with friend from my Wisconsin State Journal days when the paper’s current city editor sat down at a table near us. Once he recognized me (I haven’t aged well), he said, “Hey, I was just thinking about you. I posted one of your stories the other day.”

I hadn’t been in the newsroom for years and I had no idea what he was talking about until he decided to make me feel really old:

It’s the 20th anniversary of the bus fire,” he explained. “We’re doing updates so we posted the original.”

I never remembered the date or how long it had been, but the story of “the bus fire” comes up at least a handful of times each year in my classes. Of all the stories I wrote, that one lingers more than most.

It was a quiet, warm (for Wisconsin) Sunday evening when a mentally ill man got up from his seat on a city bus, poured gasoline on a young couple and lit them on fire. His actions turned the entire interior of that vehicle into a giant ball of flame, scorching four passengers, the driver and the assailant.

By the time Madison Metro #564 screeched to a halt on Hammersley Road, the windows had exploded outward and a giant boom drew neighborhood residents to the scene. People responded with fire extinguishers, blankets, water and anything else they could think of to help the wounded, several of whom had burns over almost half their bodies.

For me, it was supposed to be a “nothing” night on the city desk. Sunday night usually meant updating the weekly weather, nailing down the night’s lottery numbers and trying to cull a few nuggets of information out of the briefs bin. We had three police and fire scanners that sat about ear-level on my desk for anything that might happen, but it usually had to be something pretty serious for us to send a reporter.

The staff those nights usually consisted of a night editor and me. After the first edition of the paper went to press, the editor left me in charge to update any wire stories and to keep an eye out for anything worth alerting the day-side staff to. That night, however, the morning reporter was sticking around to finish off something or other that he had been working on for later that week and another reporter dropped by to get a head start on the week’s work. That meant that when the scanner alerted us to a “bus fire,” my editor was OK letting me run out there for a look-see when I asked, as I always seemed to ask, “Can I go?”

We both thought the same thing: The engine on the bus caught fire and the thing was now disabled in the middle of the road. I had planned on scraping together a story to polish off my portfolio and she was looking for something to freshen up the local section. A brief or something, maybe. She sent me out with the “newsroom phone,” one of those giant car phones of yesteryear that required you to mount an antenna on the roof of the car and plug a power pack into the cigarette lighter of your car. It was like carrying a purse and it weighed a ton.

When I got out to the scene (I took two wrong turns, as I have no sense of geography and the GPS Lady wasn’t around yet to give me step-by-step directions), two things hit me:

  1. This wasn’t an engine fire. It was something else way more horrible.
  2. I wasn’t the only one who underestimated this thing, as there weren’t enough ambulances there to take care of the wounded.

The first person I saw from the bus was a woman who I would later learn was named Ernastine Wittig. She was 73 years old and she was laying on somebody’s lawn with smoke rising off of her. Someone was holding her hand and talking to her as they waited for help. The wounds she had were like something you get when you skin your knee but it doesn’t bleed, but it rather weeps. These weeping spots were large and rimmed in black and they were all over her.

After that, it was all a blur of me finding people, asking questions and gathering information. I did what Allison Sansone noted she was once advised to do: I wrote down everything I saw and heard, having no idea how much of this was actually going to make it into the paper. I eventually ran back to my car, which by this point had been parked in by responding emergency vehicles, and called the newsroom for a photographer. My editor, Teryl Franklin, answered the phone and told me one had already been dispatched.

One of the clearer memories I have of that scene, however, was running into Eric Deutsch, who years later would be one of the “pros” in my media-writing book. Deutsch was a broadcast student in the lab I oversaw at UW-Madison a year or so earlier. He recently took a job at a local radio station and had been sent out to cover this disaster.

His recording device, a shoe-box-sized monstrosity called a Marantz, wouldn’t pick up any sound and he was kind of in a panic. For some reason, I remembered how these things worked, so I grabbed it, flipped a couple switches and sang the opening line to a Tom Jones song into his microphone, just to prove it worked.

I still have no idea why. It was a surreal moment in a surreal situation.

“Wow, I don’t remember any of that,” Deutsch told me. “If I ever write an autobiography, I’m calling you for details on my life…that does make sense about the Marantz giving me trouble. I was only on the job a a couple of weeks when this happened.”

What he did remember, interestingly enough, were things I had either forgotten, overlooked or managed to block out.

“I remember this day so vividly,” Deutsch wrote in an email earlier this week. “I was less than a year out of college at the UW, and after getting my first job as a news radio reporter in Eau Claire, had just moved back to Madison three weeks before to work at WTDY-AM. It was a Sunday, late afternoon, I was on call that weekend, just relaxing at home as the weekend was ending. The pager went off and had a vague alert about an incident with a city bus. I called my news director to see if I should head over there, because it wasn’t readily apparent based on the alert what happened. He told me to go, it was less than 10 minutes away from my apartment, so I got there quickly.”

“As I walked toward the scene, I immediately smelled a horrible stench… a combination of burned plastic and burned flesh. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything I’ve ever smelled that was more terrible; not just because of the actual physical reaction to the smell, but what it clearly meant had happened. I was able to get some basic information from some of the emergency personnel who still were on the scene, and then went to the UW Hospital where all of the victims were taken.”

I remembered running back to the office between the officers on the scene announcing they were going to have a press conference and the actual event. I pounded out almost everything I had from my notebook into a story file at the city desk before hauling ass down to the hospital.

I remember sitting next to Deutsch at that press conference. Everyone else in there was from TV or had many years of experience. They were all dressed for success. We kind of looked like random hobos who showed up for free coffee and wandered into the wrong room. I remember being embarrassed that I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. (When I got dressed for work, I figured I’d be stuck in the newsroom all night and that I’d rather be comfortable.) At least he had a Marantz with an official station logo on its microphone. People kept staring at me, or at least that’s what it felt like.

Again, it’s weird what we each remembered from that shared moment.

“I have a very distinct memory of the news conference held by the doctors that night,” Deutsch said. “Their tone as they spoke and their body language made all of us reporters think that at least a couple of the victims would not survive. It was just a very stunned and somber room as we all sat around a table; this clearly was the most horrific act most people in the room ever experienced.”

I remembered two completely different and yet ridiculous things. First, there was a guy from one of the TV stations who kept asking questions about the bucket of gasoline. Outside the bus, there was what I best described as a white “pickle bucket.” It was the kind of thing that anyone who ever worked in food service has seen, because sliced pickles or sliced potatoes usually came packed in one of these things. Police had painted an orange line around the bucket, which indicated to any sane individual that this was the bucket used in the attack.

However, this TV reporter was OBSESSED with this bucket. He asked about it and got an answer that didn’t confirm that the bucket he saw was the bucket that held the gasoline. He followed up with another bucket-related question and apparently was similarly unsatisfied as he finally said in an exasperated tone, “But was that bucket THE BUCKET the suspect had on the bus?” After one more semi-fruitless exchange, he began exasperatedly packing up his camera gear loudly.

The second thing I remember was that I almost got in a fight with this guy at a payphone after the presser was over.

When he finished with “Bucket-gate,” everyone seemed to be packing up. Deutsch was reaching for his mic and I tapped him on the arm and said, “Wait…” I had noticed the head of Madison Metro in the corner, seemingly there for support or something. I asked if he would be willing to take a couple questions. The guy got to the mic and I read him a quote from one of the people on the scene. It was something like “All the kids say they’re never going to ride the bus again.” I asked him what he wanted to say to the people who think like that and if the buses would be rolling tomorrow on that route.

He gave me a great quote about how he’d never seen anything like this, that the buses were safe as they could be and that people rely on the bus and the bus would be their for them. He then picked up his stuff and left. At this point, only Deutsch and I were in a position to get that info, as everyone else had either left or was in the process of breaking down their gear. The bucket guy confronted me about this after I had called in my quotes to my editor from a payphone just outside the room.

“Hey, what the hell?” he asked me in a really angry way. “You could have asked that while we were ALL recording. What’s your problem?”

“I just figured you had an exclusive bucket story, so I didn’t think you would care,” I said, or words to that effect. At that point, it looked like he was going to punch me. Someone else showed up and asked if I was done with the phone, so I took that opportunity to get out of there.

Amazingly, all of the people survived, including the person accused of starting the fire, Salim Amara. Police arrested him about a mile and a half from the scene and was later tried on charges of attempted murder. By the time this was going on, I had already left the State Journal for Missouri. Deutsch, however, covered the whole trial.

“I covered all aspects of Salim Amara’ court proceedings, and yet I never heard him utter a single word,” he wrote. “He would sit with his attorneys emotionless. The final story I covered for this was his sentencing hearing, when his victims were given the chance to speak directly to him. There are three stories I covered in my career that most stand out to me as the most difficult, gut punching, events I covered – this was one of them. The emotions in that packed courtroom were so intense. I specifically remember Eric Nelson, the most severely injured victim, telling Amara that he was ‘the most vile piece of human bile,’ and ‘I am strength and you are weakness.’ While obviously it was very tough for the victims to speak that day, it was good to see them get some small semblance of closure.”

Amara was found to be mentally unfit to appreciate his actions and was sentenced to 104 years in Mendota Mental Health Institute.

Not only did Deutsch remember those days, he still had his story packages from them. You can listen to them below.

It’s amazing how much of this all came back to the two of us after so long and in such a short reflex of recall. It speaks volumes about the event itself and what we went through in covering it. That said, we both agreed we learned a lot that we took with us in our careers after that.

Tomorrow: The “teachable moments” we learned covering the bus fire and why they still matter.

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