Lending a helping hand

3/14/2014

Salinans assist Amish travelers whose bus had caught fire.

Salinans assist Amish travelers whose bus had caught fire.

By GARY DEMUTH

Special to The Telegram

Tired after a long day at work, the last thing Ron Brunner expected to do Friday night was rescue a group of Amish people in a burning bus.

Brunner, who is head mechanic at Reece Construction in Salina, was driving east on Interstate Highway 70 just after 7 p.m. Friday when he noticed flames coming from underneath a passenger bus as both vehicles passed the Ohio Street exit.

"The fire was coming from their rear axle," he said.

Brunner flagged the bus driver, and the driver pulled the bus to the side of the highway. Brunner stopped behind the bus. Tired as he was, he couldn't abandon a vehicle and passengers in trouble, no matter how much he wanted to get home.

As Brunner climbed out of his car, the driver jumped off the bus with a fire extinguisher and doused the flames. Brunner asked if he could help in any way.

That's when he discovered the bus contained 56 men, women and children from Amish communities in Iowa and northern Missouri. The group was returning from a wedding in Colorado and already had experienced a blown tire the day before on this tour bus supplied by an Amish-owned bus company.

"I saw a lot of gray beards, white shirts, hats and long dresses," Brunner said. "When I looked in the bus, all I saw were smiling faces. No one was upset."

Still, this traveling Amish community was stuck by the side of the road. Despite multiple efforts, a tow truck or mechanic couldn't be persuaded to come to the scene.

"We couldn't get anyone else out there to help," Brunner said. "That's when I decided to take it upon myself to see if I could do something."

Temporary home

The first thing Brunner did was call his wife, Kristi Brunner, to see if she knew of somewhere to take these 56 stranded people while he tried to repair their bus.

Luckily, Kristi Brunner had a perfect place: she is director of Drury Place, a retirement apartment complex at 1000 Schippel, and there was space in the downstairs dining room.

"That's the way Ron and I were raised, to do the right thing," she said. "We like helping people, and we had this place. Otherwise, these folks would have to sit in the bus for seven or eight hours. I didn't think that was right. That's a long time for kids and babies."

Kristi Brunner called Drury Place's night manager, LeEtta Morris, to see if she could accommodate some unexpected guests. Then she asked maintenance worker Gil Lobdell to drive their courtesy bus to the scene and start bringing people there. Drury Place employee Linda Walter and her husband also picked up a load in their car.

Ferrying passengers

Lobdell brought the first bus load back within half an hour.

"You can only get 10 or 12 in that little bus, so I had to make about three trips," he said. "I got them in pretty quick. The first ones we brought were kids and babies."

Morris said she couldn't have asked for more polite and pleasant guests.

"In this big place we had 56 people, including kids, and 90 percent of our residents didn't know anyone was here," she said. "They were extremely polite and very appreciative, and we were able to show our Christian hospitality to a group of people who desperately needed help."

Morris, her husband, Wes, and assistant night manager Bill Adams made sure their guests had access to coffee and water and that the children had snacks.

"The little kids got Cheerios and were so excited," Morris said. "It was a pleasure to host them. They didn't expect you to do anything for them. We showed them where everything was, and they served themselves."

The group stayed at Drury Place about four hours while Ron Brunner did what he could to repair the axle using the hand tools he had in his car. He was assisted by Kansas Highway Patrol troopers who set up cones and illuminated the area with lights.

Repairing axle

Brunner didn't have the parts to repair the axle, so with the help of friend Joey Herrman, he jacked up the bus and chained the damaged axle to the undercarriage. Their goal was to get the bus on the road again to Topeka, where the owners would have it repaired.

"I chained up the axle so it wouldn't drag on the ground," Brunner said. "They would be driving on one axle, so I told the driver to stop at every rest stop to let the front axle cool down."

By 11 p.m., the bus was ready to travel again. Shortly after 11:30 p.m., the bus was loaded and the Amish people were on their way to Topeka. Brunner refused any payment for his labor.

Pay it forward

"The (Amish) elder thanked me 10 times for stopping and said it was like an angel came up behind them," Brunner said. "It was a pleasure to help people like that because they appreciate everything you do for them. I'd do it over and over again."

The next day, the Brunners received a call from the bus driver, who said the group had made it safely to Topeka. They also received a call from a representative of the bus company, thanking them for their assistance.

"They offered to do something for us, but Ron and I didn't do this for any recognition," Kristi Brunner said. "We told them if they see anyone in need, then pass on the good deed. Just pay it forward."

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