Wheaton show choir flees bus fire, then wins competition
Even as they watched the bus they had been traveling in burst into flames, Wheaton Warrenville South High School's Espirit Show Choir singers knew the show had to go on.
Costumes were burned, makeup disintegrated, purses filled with personal belongings lost, but nothing was going to stop the girls from participating in the Onalaska High School Show Choir Classic in Onalaska, Wisconsin.
"The thought of just turning around and going home didn't even occur to me because I know my students, and I knew if I asked any one of them if they wanted to go home they would have said no way," show choir director Kelsey Nichols said.
Esprit singer Clare Neese said the close escape made choir members want to get on the stage even more.
"We had been working so, so hard," she said.
Their determination paid off when the girls were named Grand Champions of the women's division at Saturday's competition, thanks to the help of parents and strangers.
While the weekend ended on a happy note, Friday evening was filled with terrifying moments.
Two charter buses carrying the singers from South's two show choirs were traveling to the competition when the rear bus was suddenly jolted near the Portage, Wisconsin, exit off I-90.
"At first we thought we hit an animal," Espirit member Emma Michalski said. "It was very loud. You could definitely feel it. We didn't really know what was going on."
Clare, a senior sitting in the back of the bus, said she started to smell burning rubber and some girls started yelling at the driver to pull over. When the driver got off the bus, the smell began to change to burning gasoline. Then, someone spotted flames on the side of the bus.
"We finally realized something was wrong," she said.
At one point the flames were high enough to reach the windows.
As the 53 people on the bus began to get off, Clare tried to calm girls who were screaming and told others who were grabbing their bags to stop what they were doing and get off.
"I was really terrified," said Emma, a sophomore. "Everyone was just really scared."
Relief overcame the girls as they all got safely on the other bus, but then the realization that all their belongings were destroyed started to sink in.
"What are we going to do now?" Emma remembers thinking. "People were really sad and it was just scary knowing everything was gone."
All the students crowded onto the undamaged bus for nearly an hour until transportation arrangements could be made.
"It was quite a while of just having to sit there and watch the other bus burn," Nichols said. "I think that's what led to the distress of the girls. It was traumatic, for sure, for a lot of them."
But with the generosity of people in Wheaton and Onalaska, the girls were given everything they needed to put on a successful show.
The father of one of the singers collected items from other parents at his home until 1:30 a.m. He headed up to Wisconsin, and a group of parents who were traveling with the group went back to South to dig through old costumes that could be used at Saturday's competition.
The girls were set to perform shortly after 11 a.m. Saturday, but their time was moved to later in the day so their costumes could be hemmed and altered. As word got out in Onalaska, countless people reached out to help, too, providing hairspray, makeup, shoes and old costumes.
"They were looking for ways to help our kids so they could have their performance be as normal as possible. It was phenomenal," Principal Dave Claypool said. "It really does make you feel very good."
The girls nominated Nichols for the "showstopper award" at the end of the competition, an award that is typically given to a star student.
"We are incredibly thankful for every ounce of support we've gotten and for how wonderful our director was in coordinating everything, really just keeping a calm, collected attitude about her," Clare said. "It was really comforting."
But Nichols said her students were the ones who really deserved an award.
"I was really proud of how they handled everything," she said. "They were very mature beyond their years."