Zita Ferebee was credited with getting 40 students out of a burning bus following a collision which killed four of the five occupants of a pickup truck that rear-ended her school bus, sent it off the road and hit it again in the front. The truck burst into flames and the fire quickly transferred to the school bus. At the meeting of the National Association for Pupil Transportation in November, 2006, Ferebee received the Heroism Award, sponsored by the Blue Bird Corporation. Also on hand for the honors were Perquimans County Superintendent Dr. Ken Wells, Zita's mother, and a number of state and local North Carolina conference attendees.
On Thursday, December 7, "Miss Zita" was honored at the meeting of the North Carolina State Board of Education. State Superintendent Howard Lee presented her with a plaque acknowledging her heroic efforts. State Board members saw a TV report of the crash and offered their thanks for her service.
October 25, 2005 - Hertford, North Carolina
Ms. Zita Ferebee, a four year school bus driver for the Perquimans County Schools, approached her final stop of the morning on U.S. Hwy 17, less than a mile from her home. There were 41 students on board as she activated the amber lights, signaling traffic to slow. The single student scheduled to board at this stop (fortunately) was not there on that day. As she looked in her rearview mirror, Ms. Ferebee saw a black pickup truck bearing down on the school bus. The truck struck the rear of the school bus, careened off the left side of the road and then came back on the road striking the front of the bus with such force that the truck burst into flames.
The driver and four passengers in the pickup truck were laborers on their way to work on a project in nearby Elizabeth City. The driver of the truck survived and was charged in the accident. The four passengers died. It was not clear whether their fatal injuries resulted from the crash or the fire.
The force of the crash pushed the school bus off the road into a ditch. Ms. Ferebee is credited with keeping the bus from rolling over and then taking charge as the fire quickly spread from the truck to the bus. Ms. Ferebee had been trained to evacuate the school bus, but never believed she would have to. Instinctively, her training kicked in. Just recently the students had participated in evacuation training, so they were very prepared to respond to instructions from the lady they know as “Miss Zita.”
As the flames entered the bus from the front, the students scrambled to the rear of the bus, only to find the emergency door had been rendered inoperable by the crash. Several students wrapped their hands in cloths and beat out the rear windows and the emergency door window. Most students escaped through these windows, aided by an unidentified motorist that stopped to help.
Mrs. Zita continued to help all 41 students escape the bus to safety until her job was done. When it appeared that all students had been safely evacuated, Mrs. Zita made one final trip to the front of the bus, toward the encroaching flames, to make sure - ABSOLUTELY SURE - that no students, either asleep, trapped or simply too scared to move - remained on the bus. Only then did Miss Zita climb through one of the rear windows to safety.
Once safely away from the fire, Miss Zita embraced her student passengers and realized then more than ever how much she loved them. THAT’S why she was meant to be a school bus driver.
In account after account - from eyewitnesses, students and parents - the thing that stood out was how Mrs. Zita remained calm, called on her training, took control of the situation and refused to leave the bus until she was sure that all of the children were safe.
The following Sunday, October 30, 2005, Zita Ferebee was named as the Tar Heel of the Week in the News and Observer newspaper, published in Raleigh, 150 miles west of Hertford. This article highlighted Ferebee’s passion and dedication, leaving readers with not only a very positive perception of school bus drivers, but also with a better understanding of the student safety with which they are entrusted.
On November 28, 2005, Zita Ferebee was honored at a community reception hosted by the Dr. Kenneth Wells, Superintendent and the Perquimans County Board of Education. A video compilation of her heroism was prepared for this event.
From the very beginning and months after the incident, everyone involved has been quick to credit one person with the determination to make sure that all students came through this horrific crash with only scrapes and bruises - their hero, “Miss Zita” Ferebee.
NAPT Award Nomination for the Blue Bird Heroism Award
Mrs. Zita Ferebee
School Bus Driver
Perquimans County Schools (North Carolina)
“As I review once again the circumstances of the horrific events leading to this nomination, I confess that I become misty-eyed, thinking about the emotional impact on everyone involved with the events of October 25, 2005. In my experience, it seems that we have been fortunate in North Carolina that most major school bus crashes have occurred when there are few or no students on the bus. That was not the case on October 25, just after Zita Ferebee made her final morning stop before proceeding on to Perquimans Middle School. Forty-one students are indebted to “Mrs. Zita” as she is credited with staying calm, invoking her school bus driver training and evacuating them from a burning bus. When I met Zita, she shared with me that she wasn’t sure why she first applied for a job as school bus driver. But, after this ordeal, she is absolutely sure why - She Loves These Kids!”
Submitted by Derek Graham
State Director, North Carolina
NAPT Member # 3142