MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Richfield Middle School boys basketball team is safe after their school bus erupted in flames Monday afternoon in Maplewood while en route to their first game of the season.

Richfield Public Schools officials say the fire broke out on northbound Highway 494 at Carver Avenue at about 3:30 p.m. The driver quickly pulled over after smelling and seeing smoke coming from the vents, and he got all 18 seventh-grade boys and Coach Daniel Beyel safely off the bus.

“Kind of smelled some smoke or something, and then we saw black smoke coming out of the front of the bus,” Beyel said. “I’m just really proud of the kids for responding calmly, getting off the bus.”

About five minutes after they escaped is when the fire intensified, with smoke billowing from the northbound shoulder into the southbound lanes where traffic was still moving. The northbound lanes were at a standstill as firefighters worked to get the flames under control.

Beyel said the first responders gave the boys blankets, and let them into their vehicles to keep warm. A new bus showed up and took the team back to Richfield. Their game in Maplewood ended up getting cancelled.

WCCO met up with Beyel as he was getting a new phone since his was lost in the fire — but that’s replaceable. The lives of his players, and the training they received for bus emergencies, is what he’s thankful for on a night he won’t forget.

“It’s credit to the school system and the bus drivers for teaching [the students] and making sure it happens because it’s a serious thing,” he said.

Officials say the driver has nearly 20 years of experience.

“We are extremely grateful that there were no injuries and that our driver was able to quickly and calmly evacuate students,” Superintendent Steven Unowsky said. “His swift and decisive actions ensured students and staff were safe.”

The four-year-old bus last underwent an inspection in December. The Minnesota State Patrol is investigating.

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