Sprinklers likely saved a fleet of Red Rose Transit Authority buses from ruin Sunday morning when an electrical fire started inside one bus, sparking a four-alarm blaze that caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage, officials said.
The bus that caught on fire was parked in a garage housing 30 others at RRTA's headquarters at 45 Erick Road in Lancaster city.
Fire officials said sprinklers contained the flames to the initial bus. The others sustained soot and smoke damage.
"This was a perfect example of the value of a good sprinkler system," city fire Chief Tim Gregg said. "A couple sprinkler heads kept that fire to one bus. Without them, they could have lost the whole fleet."
A preliminary damage estimate was set at $400,000, according to firefighters and RRTA Executive Director Dave Kilmer.
The fire left its mark, but Kilmer said it could have been much worse. He expects no disruptions to bus service this morning.
"(Sprinklers) saved the day," he said. "They paid for themselves. This could have been a catastrophe."
More than 30 workers with Compleat Restorations were cleaning the 30 soot-laden buses Sunday. Kilmer said the workers will be at RRTA's headquarters until "all the buses are cleaned."
"We fully expect to meet service needs (this) morning," Kilmer said.
The fire alarm inside the 39,000-square-foot garage sounded at 1 a.m. Sunday morning. Fire crews were met by a thick, "acrid" cloud of black smoke inside the building, city fire Capt. John Thomas said.
Commanding Officer Captain Ed Haubert quickly sounded a general alarm, which dispatches the city's entire fire unit to the scene or to stations on standby.
It was the city's second general alarm fire within a week. On June 7, a blaze at a downtown high rise also went to four alarms. More than 100 occupants of Steven House Condominiums were evacuated for most of that day. More than a dozen apartments were condemned as a result of the fire, which caused about $340,000 in damages.
The RRTA fire was even more costly.
"We probably set it pretty low at $400,000," Thomas said.
Firefighters had to battle the RRTA fire under difficult circumstances as they were blinded by the smoke.
"The sprinklers actually pushed the smoke down on them," Thomas said.
To make matters worse, the burning bus was parked on top of a repair pit that had filled with water.
"It was a very dangerous area," Thomas said. "We're pretty fortunate that nobody was hurt."
Firefighters extinguished the fire within 45 minutes of dispatch.
RRTA's 13 other buses were parked elsewhere, and six of those were used for Sunday riders, Kilmer said.
The bus that caught fire is a "complete loss," officials said. Kilmer said the 2003 model bus had 287,000 miles - about half of its expected life span as a mass transit vehicle.
On Sunday, it was a blackened shell surrounded by broken glass and debris. Kilmer likened the fire's damage to that caused by an explosive. "Looks like something you'd see in Beirut," he said.
The exact cause is still being investigated. Officials said it started accidentally due to an electrical problem near the front of the bus.