The UCI Police Department discovered an ASUCI campus shuttle engulfed in flames in Parking Lot 1B around 5 a.m. on Sept. 22. The fire may have been a result of arson or faulty wiring within the vehicle, and was then fueled by highly flammable seats. If investigators find wiring to be the cause of the fire, there could be serious ramifications for all ASUCI shuttle drivers and riders.
The UCIPD arrived at the scene around 5:15 a.m. in response to several 911 calls placed by motorists on Campus Drive and a Verano Place resident.
By the time the 911 calls were placed, the empty shuttle had already been burning for approximately three hours.
‘I assume it was a pretty big fire since drivers reported seeing it from Campus Drive,’ said Sgt. Shaun Devlin of UCIPD. ‘The burn marks on the roof show it must have been pretty intense.’
Devlin described what one witness claimed to have heard that morning.
‘A gas attendant at USA Gas [on the corner of Campus Drive and California Drive] reported hearing a loud bang. That was probably one of the windows blowing,’ Devlin said.
Some windows blew out from the heat of the flames, leaving shattered glass and ashes around the vehicle, but most of the damage came from the firefighters.
‘The firefighters had to pry open the door and knock out most of the windows to ventilate the fire,’ said UCIPD Assistant Chief of Police Jeff Hutchison.
Almost every seat was charred and most were left with only their metal frames remaining. Both headlights were also blown out and a nearby tree was also burned.
The night before the fire, the student driver parked the shuttle away from the two other ASUCI reserve vehicles in the lot. When questioned by UCIPD in the morning, the driver said that the vehicle was exactly as he left it, parked askew in the middle of the lot with the doors locked.
Hutchison explained that the position of the shuttle in Parking Lot 1B saved the shuttle from causing more damage.
‘We’re lucky that the bus wasn’t parked near [the other buses] or there would have been considerably more damage, maybe two or three damaged buses instead of just one,’ Hutchison said.
The charred ASUCI shuttle was a 1994 Bluebird priced between $16,000 to $20,000, although the figure might be slightly higher because the bus came equipped with a handicap ramp.
Devlin claims that problems with electrical wiring could be a possible explanation for the fire.
‘You see older buses like this have wiring go wrong a lot. Those vehicles burn all the time,’ Devlin said.
Luckily, the shuttle was not in use and no students were in the bus because, according to Devlin, ‘The seats were made of highly flammable material. Seats like those would burn like gasoline when lit up.’
An employee of the Parking and Transportation Services who wishes to remain anonymous noted that only the metal skeleton of the seats remained within the charred insides of the bus, revealing their high flammability.
Marge Yarborough, the state fire marshal, has obtained maintenance records of all ASUCI shuttles from Fleet Services to verify regular upkeep on the vehicles. She and her staff will also look for evidence of malfunction, electrical or otherwise, in the burned shuttle. If the same problem is found in all shuttles, ASUCI might have more to worry about than one damaged bus.
‘It is worrisome regardless of what caused the fire,’ said ASUCI President Gabriel Ayass, ‘and what is most unfortunate is that the students using the service will ultimately suffer.’
Ayass discussed the effect that losing the bus will have on the campus shuttle service.
‘It certainly won’t cripple it. We always had three buses on reserve in case of problems that happen every so often,’ Ayass explained.
Without the reserve, however, the ability of the service to offer reliable service could be compromised.
ASUCI is looking to replace the damaged shuttle but is awaiting final reports before filing any insurance paperwork.
UCIPD and the state fire marshal have not ruled out the possibility of arson. Yarborough, who handles arson cases for Orange County, continues to investigate the incident and will release a preliminary report within a week.
‘So far we have no leads or suspicious evidence, but we want to make sure and rule out all the possibilities,’ Hutchison said.
UCIPD has officially classified the case as ‘undetermined’ and turned the remains of the shuttle over to Special Events Parking to tow away. UCIPD also awaits Yarborough’s report before taking any definitive action.
Until then, UCIPD will be going door-to-door in the area asking residents if they had seen any suspicious activity the night of the fire.
They ask anyone with any information concerning the burned ASUCI shuttle to contact their non-emergency line at (949) 824-5223.
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