ITHACA, N.Y.—Keith Whitaker was starting his normal route on Jan. 19, driving his Ithaca City School District bus to Groton to pick children up and get them to school in time for first period.

Then he saw something unusual out of the corner of his eye as he was driving down North Meadow Street around 5:50 a.m.

“I noticed a flicker out of the corner of my eye that didn’t look right to me, so I did a double-take,” Whitaker said in an interview with the Ithaca Voice. “I noticed that the house at the corner of Cascadilla and North Meadow Street was on fire.”

While Whitaker had never seen a blaze on his route, he wasn’t unfamiliar with close contact with fire. Before his time as a bus driver, he had been a volunteer firefighter in Trumansburg for 22 years, up until 2012. There, he said, the department would usually respond to about two or three structure fires per year.

Acting quickly, Whitaker said he told his dispatcher to call 911 and alert the Ithaca Fire Department and circled around the block in his school bus.

“I advised him that […] I was going to go back, evacuate the structure and use the fire extinguisher off of my school bus to knock the fire down a little bit while I was waiting for the Ithaca Fire Department to get over there,” Whitaker said.

In front of the house, nothing looked out of place, Whitaker said. But after knocking on the door and getting no response, he went around back to where he had previously seen the fire. The flames were about 1-2 feet high at that point, beginning to climb the outside of the house that Whitaker could see, so he used his fire extinguisher to put out what he could see outside.

About five minutes after Whitaker called his dispatcher, the fire department arrived and took over the scene.

In a press release Wednesday, police thanked Whitaker for his effort and confirmed that he potentially saved people from injury and loss of life by alerting the occupants and knocking the flames down, though the department did not specify how many people were inside the house. Further, though, police claimed an accelerant was used to intentionally start the fire at the house and declared it an arson investigation, asking anyone with information or who may have seen someone in the area at the time to contact the department. More information was not provided.

Whitaker, for his part, said when he happened upon the fire he noticed an odd smell, one that he normally wouldn’t associate with a house fire in his experience. Beyond that, though, he relayed that the police or fire department hadn’t told him much about what the possible circumstances were.

Whitaker notes that he was late to his first pick-up in Groton, but thankfully his dispatcher had explained the situation to distressed families.

“I was on quite a few structure fires in those 22 years, I can’t even count how many,” Whitaker said of his prior experience. “Seeing the flicker of the flames, I instantly said ‘This is what you gotta do, you gotta go back and get people out, gotta use your fire extinguisher to knock it down or it’s going to become a fully involved house fire.’ […] I did what I had to do, I don’t see it like I was heroic. I just did what I was trained for 22 years to do, it’s second nature to me.”

Acknowledging the ongoing bus driver shortage in the school district, Whitaker and ICSD Transportation Director Elizabeth Berner said anyone interested in becoming a bus driver, hopefully without having to extinguish any fires, should contact the district’s Transportation Department.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com