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Firefighters battled a passenger bus blaze yesterday along the Mass. Pike eastbound in Newton.
Firefighters battled a passenger bus blaze yesterday along the Mass. Pike eastbound in Newton. (Globe Photo / Silvia Illia)

Passengers tell of wild bus trip

Vehicle bursts into flames on Pike

A New York-to-Boston bus burst into flames on the Massachusetts Turnpike early yesterday, sending spectacular flames into the sky and capping what two passengers said was a harrowing trip after the driver ignored problems with the vehicle and continued to Boston.

Shitong Ou -- the driver of the Travel Pack bus, based in Chinatown -- pulled over before the toll booths in Allston-Brighton and ordered all passengers off. Seconds later, the vehicle burst into flames, shortly after 2 a.m., according to passengers and state officials.

The bus was destroyed by the fire, which closed the eastbound Mass. Pike before the Allston-Brighton tolls for about an hour. Neither Ou nor his passengers, estimated at 10, were injured. Records show Ou had five moving violations last year.

Travel Pack is one of several bus companies that battle for customers on the competitive route between Boston and New York.

The fire marked the end of a bizarre sequence that began when one of the tires seemed to blow out, according to one passenger, Silvia Illia.

A bus company official disputed the account that Ou continued driving after he knew the vehicle had a problem.

Illia said the bus first stopped right after what she believed to be the Weston tolls. She said she got out and saw white smoke coming from the rear. A Mass. Pike employee, she said, came over to check out the situation before Ou examined the bus and ordered people back on board.

Back on the road, she said, with smoke entering the bus, Ou was driving slowly while speaking in Chinese on a walkie-talkie. The bus stopped again, Illia said, and Ou got out, inspected the bus, reboarded, and decided to start driving again, this time at a higher speed.

''It was really uncomfortable to be there," Illia said. ''We had a flat, and he kept going."

She said the episode was not that frightening, but she questioned his decision to keep driving. ''It was just the wrong thing to do," said Illia, an architect.

Approaching the Allston-Brighton tolls, Ou again stopped the bus and screamed, '' 'Everybody out! Everybody out!,' " Illia said. ''The whole thing went up in flames."

A state trooper arrived, followed by Boston firefighters, who eventually put the fire out.

Channel 5 reported yesterday that another passenger -- Jonathan Jones, a University of Massachusetts student -- said that the driver was aware of a problem with a tire and had pulled over a few times before he stopped the bus the final time. Jones, according to Channel 5, was angry that the driver had kept going.

Ou had his commercial driver's license suspended for 60 days last year after he was ticketed for going at least 15 miles over the speed limit in Connecticut, one of five traffic citations he received while driving buses in 2004, according to Registry of Motor Vehicle records. Two were for speeding.

A State Police spokesman said yesterday that the incident remains under investigation, but that no charges had been filed against Ou.

The $15 one-way trip originated about 10 p.m. in New York and was to end at South Station, where Travel Pack, owned by Kristine Travel and Tour Inc. of Chinatown, operates. A second company, Lucky Star, serves as ticket takers, Jason Chung, a Travel Pack official, said yesterday.

Chung disputed Illia's account of the trip, saying he believes the $300,000 bus probably caught fire because of mechanical problems in the rear-mounted engine and that Ou stopped only the final time.

Chung said that Ou wrote in a report that he noticed sparks coming from the engine while driving between exits 17 and 18. Ou wrote that he pulled over, ordered passengers off, and tried unsuccessfully to put the fire out with an extinguisher, Chung said.

''We are run safely," Chung said.

The state Department of Telecommunications and Energy inspects commercial bus fleets. Its executive director, Timothy Shevlin, said the Travel Pack bus was inspected last year and was in good mechanical condition.

A department inspector examined the remains of the vehicle yesterday, but has not reached a conclusion about what sparked the fire, he said.

But Shevlin said that while the department can inspect buses, the agency lacks the legal authority to investigate the safety of Travel Pack's operations. He asked the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration yesterday to review the bus company's safety procedures.

An administration spokesman, Bill McLeod, said the agency has not decided whether to undertake the review.

Yesterday afternoon, Chung gave the Globe the telephone number of a woman who he said had also been on the bus. The woman, Sandy Fung, said she was dozing through most of the ride, but that she recalled the bus stopping just once, at the Allston-Brighton tolls. She said she would have awakened if they had stopped before that.

''The only time it stopped was when he asked us to leave," said Chung, who said she was a computer science major at Northeastern University.

A trooper eventually flagged down a Greyhound bus, whose driver took the stranded passengers to South Station.

According to Illia, Ou initially was calm while being interviewed by police. But as the fire intensified, she said, he tried to run away by jumping over a steel barrier between the traffic lanes.

Police managed to calm him down, she said.

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