Tonya Pennington has been driving buses for AUSD for over 20 years

ATASCADERO — On Saturday, April 2, Tonya Pennington, a school bus driver for the Atascadero Unified School District (AUSD), averted a potential disaster when her bus started having mechanical failures due to an electrical fire. 

“I was en route to Atascadero from Morro Bay with our JV baseball team after they played their game,” stated Pennington. “I drive Bus 36, which is my favorite bus. I’ve been in that bus for a very long time. In saying that, I know that bus inside and out.”

Pennington said she heard a loud pop and instantly knew something pretty major was wrong with her bus. She quickly noticed that the power to the bus was being affected, and her gauges started fluttering, which indicated to her that she was probably dealing with an electrical fire. Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw smoke coming from the back of the bus.

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“I looked back at the coaches, and I said, ‘I have a little problem, so I’m going to find a safe place to pull over, and then you guys are going to evacuate the scene, and you’re going to get them [the team] off the roadway, about 10 to 20 feet from the bus,'” Pennington said. “I was hoping to pull over quickly before anyone got alarmed. And so as I was starting to pull over into this perfect pullout (it was like it was customized for me), one of the boys goes, ‘there’s smoke back here.’ I said, ‘it’s fine; we’re pulling over.’ So I pulled over, pulled my brake, turned off my bus, and got everyone off to safety.”

Pennington worked with coaches Scot Craycraft and Chance Viale, delegating making phone calls to 911 and Atascadero High School’s athletics director, Sam DeRose, to them. Tonya wanted to make sure that everyone knew their kids were safe and that the incident was solely a mechanical situation. Pennington then grabbed a fire extinguisher and went to the back of the bus. There were flames both under the bus and shooting up its side. Because of dry brush in the area, Pennington decided to cross the whole team, with the help of coaches Craycraft and Viale, across Highway 41. 

“Those coaches were amazing,” added Pennington. “Best coaches, best kids in the world. They listened, they didn’t argue, left their equipment like I asked, and walked to the other side [of 41]. They entertained themselves and kept off the roadway.” 

Not only did Pennington make sure that every single team member and coach was off the bus, but she also managed to get all the team’s gear to safety as well.

“Every time a team gets on the bus, it’s like getting on an airplane; they take you through all the safety precautions and protocols should there be an incident. And our bus drivers do that every time we go on a trip,” said DeRose. “That’s part of the districts and our normal procedures whenever we travel, is we go through all of our safety protocols.”

DeRose, who wasn’t on the bus himself, was busy communicating with the Atascadero High administrators and the Transportation Department during the incident, making sure everyone knew what was transpiring.

“I spoke to Tonya a little bit after they had got everybody out and moved, and she handled it with such grace and professionalism and kept the situation calm. You couldn’t ask for anything more,” DeRose said of how Pennington handled the situation. “We are very grateful. We feel blessed. We’re very appreciative of Tonya.”

Pennington has been driving buses for AUSD for over 20 years, starting as a substitute, but she has officially been working for the district for almost 19 of those.

“When our teams travel, kids will ask, ‘is Tonya driving today?’ She has that respect and care from our kids and coaches,” added DeRose.

Pennington, who was lead during the incident, also had help and support from the transportation office, her boss, the district office, and people who offered to pick up kids, while another bus driver showed up to get the athletes home. On top of DeRose, Craycraft, and Viale’s help.

At the Atascadero Unified School District Meeting on Tuesday, April 19, Pennington was celebrated for her heroics and was presented with flowers and a baseball that the entire JV baseball team signed. 

“Sometimes bus driving is a very thankless job, and these parents and these kids were really, really amazing,” said Pennington. “It touched my heart.”

Tonya Pennington (middle, with flowers) is shown with the Atascadero School Board and members of the AUSD Transportation Department, and AHS JV baseball team. Contributed photo