What could have been a tragedy Tuesday night turned into a lesson in the importance of maintaining a cool head during an emergency.

A group of 51 Quail Creek residents was coming back from a blustery and frigid trip to Kitt Peak Observatory when their tour bus erupted in flames and was destroyed in minutes.

No one was hurt and many even saw a bit of humor in the situation, said Barbara Galbraith, one of the bus passengers. There's been talk of making T-shirts: "I survived Kitt Peak in the winter and the bus ride home," she said.

The group's adventure began around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday when they got on the Gray Line charter bus to make the 71-mile trip west to Kitt Peak in the Quinlan Mountains. The Quail Creek home owners association made the arrangements, Galbraith said.

"It was an old bus and on the way up it seemed to have a terrible time changing gears, but it got us there," she said. 

The group had a wonderful time at the observatory, which is at nearly 7,000 feet elevation, despite it being windy and "cold, cold, cold," she said. They enjoyed seeing Saturn and the staff was knowledgeable.

On the way down, Galbraith was settling in for a nap when she noticed what smelled like diesel fuel; she attributed it to the heater and brushed it off. Before long, she had a scratchy throat and headache.

When the driver stopped at the bottom of the mountain at State Route 86, Galbraith said she noticed he took a long time to turn even though there was no traffic.

Once he turned, "he wasn't able to get going very fast," she said.

When the headlights of oncoming cars illuminated the inside of the bus, she grew concerned.

"I could see the air was kind of foggy," she said. "We were on Ajo (Road) a short time and suddenly there was a huge bang in the back. I'd call it an explosion. Not long after that there was a second one."

The bus driver immediately stopped and it seemed like a long time before the front doors of the bus opened up, Galbraith said. As people started slowly moving toward the front of the bus, a man called out, she said.

"Get moving. There's a fire back here," Galbraith recalled him saying. "He had a wonderful booming voice and he just told everyone, 'Calmly, calmly get out.'"

"That's all the people needed was that commanding voice," Galbraith said. "I was impressed with how orderly the people were. They didn't reach into the bins to get their items, they just disembarked."

Frances Martin was sitting near the back and said she didn't see the flames at first. A woman two rows behind her did. She said a lot of people lost camera equipment in the fire.

When she was off the bus, Galbraith said she could see flames coming from the sides of the bus and she heard at least one more explosion. Within 15 minutes the bus was engulfed in flames.

“The bus burned down to nothing,” Martin said.

Galbraith said that as she stood there in the middle of nowhere, the flying embers looked liked Christmas lights.

"I watched the embers floating in that strong wind and I was terrified there would be a wildfire," she said.

Someone was eventually able to call 911 despite sketchy cell service and two ambulances and Tohono O'odham police arrived fairly quickly. It took 20 to 25 minutes before firefighters arrived, she said. They were 23 miles west of Interstate 19.

The smell of burning upholstery was horrible, but she was amused when the bus horn began to honk, as though it were having one last hurrah.

"It had seen better days," Galbraith said.

About 90 minutes after the fire began, Gray Line sent a newer "luxurious" bus to bring them home, she said.

Galbraith said she is incredibly proud of how everyone "kept their heads."

"I credit it to age and wisdom," she said.

Tom "T.J." Martin with Gray Line Tours and Matt Smith with the Tohono O'odham Nation said the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Includes information from Dan Shearer. Reach Kim Smith at 520-547-9740.

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