Bus No. 347 was headed to Coker-Winberly Elementary School with 39 students on board at about 7:30 a.m. when some children in the back of the bus smelled smoke, officials said.
"One of the kids came to me and said, 'Miss Penny, the bus is smoking,'" said driver Penny Cooper.
Cooper noticed dark clouds filling the bus and immediately pulled into the parking lot of a mobile home park on West Logsboro Road.
She helped the students get out through the bus' front exit, while trying to stay calm.
"Don't ever let the children see you panic," she said.
Inside, she was praying.
"Lord, please let me get these kids off this bus quick, quick, quick," Cooper said.
She led the students, ages 4 to 11, to a field away from the bus and called 911 and Edgecombe County Schools officials to report the fire.
Devante Hunter, 9, said the flames spread quickly.
"It happened so fast," Hunter said. "When we got to school, some children had to go in a room. They were crying."
Cooper, who has been a school bus driver for 8 years, said the children helped each other and followed her commands.
"I even went back on to make sure I got everybody off that bus," she said.
The school praised Cooper's quick thinking.
"We are very proud of Ms. Cooper and the children who all followed the emergency procedures they have practiced in drills at school," Coker-Wimberly Elementary Principal Lisa Howell said in a statement. "It was a scary situation for our young students, but they remained calm and moved quickly to evacuate the bus. We are grateful that no one was hurt."
Parents were notified of the incident, and another bus arrived to take the students to school.
School transportation director Tommy Hudson said the fire started near the bus' air-conditioning unit.
"It started in the rear of the bus," he said. "(Made) its way up the bus and just consumed all the seats and insulation in the roof until it came right out the windshield."
The cause of the fire hasn't been determined.
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