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FIRST CASUALTIES

Rescuers helpless as elderly evacuees are killed in bus fire

HOUSTON -- By the time the first officers arrived, it was too late.

The initial 911 call had been about a bus emitting flames, but those flames quickly became an inferno that consumed two dozen elderly people who were being evacuated from their nursing home as Houston prepared for Hurricane Rita.

Trapped by their infirmities and surrounded by flames, the residents of a facility called Brighton Gardens cried out for help in their broken-down bus on Interstate 45 near Dallas, but rescuers could not reach them. Three Dallas County deputy sheriffs and a local police officer could not get past the second-level step of the bus when they arrived at 6:09 a.m.

''One deputy felt the blast furnace of flames and smelled the black acrid smoke and he could hear them. He shined his flashlight in and said: 'Please come forward to the light. I can't get to you,' " Dallas County Sheriff's Department spokesman Don Peritz said. ''Then there was a number of small explosions and he was forced to come back off the bus."

Authorities said they believe explosions came when some of the residents' oxygen tanks ignited.

The Brighton Gardens residents were the first of Rita's victims, dying 24 hours before the hurricane was to make landfall. They were among 39 residents on the bus; the 15 others were taken to Dallas hospitals. The bus driver and six nursing home employees aboard survived.

Brighton Gardens is a 140-bed assisted living and skilled nursing facility in Bellaire, a Houston suburb. It is owned by Sunrise Senior Living Inc. of McLean, Va.

''Sunrise has been devastated by this tragedy," said Paul Klassen, company chairman and chief executive officer. ''Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the residents involved in this unfortunate incident. Our primary concern is for the safety of our residents, and we are shocked and saddened that this event occurred during our evacuation."

Brighton Gardens administrators began the evacuation on Thursday.

Families picked up most of the residents, but two busloads of residents and staff members were dispatched to sister facilities in Dallas. One bus arrived safely early yesterday morning. The second bus, which left Thursday night, broke down on I-45, about 20 miles south of Dallas. The driver managed to pull the vehicle onto the shoulder of the northbound lanes, to free up a lane surrounded by a sea of vehicles carrying evacuees out of Houston for as far as the eye could see.

Callers to 911 reported seeing flames coming from the rear of the bus.

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