For San Jose native Julia Gallo, Saturday was supposed to be a relaxing day of skiing in the Lake Tahoe region with three girlfriends -- and a much-needed break from their studies at the University of San Francisco.
But the last of the ski season's snow, sun and fun that awaited her and about 40 other USF students was cut short just 30 minutes from their destination at Northstar California Resort when a Storer Coachways bus suddenly blew a tire and caught fire about 9 a.m.
No one was injured in the incident, which occurred on Interstate 80 near the Rainbow Road exit in Placer County. Byron Storer, the company's operations manager, said late Saturday that a preliminary investigation had led the firm to believe the driver had hit some road debris, causing the flat and subsequent fire.
Gallo said as the students huddled outside the bus on a freeway shoulder, which she described as "in the middle of nowhere," the back of the bus and storage space underneath were soon engulfed in flames -- along with the students' ski clothes and gear. "We were just very shaken up trying to get as far away from the bus as we could."
Before the tire blew, "most of us were asleep, and I was kind of dozing off," said the 21-year-old Gallo, a junior at USF studying nursing. "And then all of a sudden, we heard a loud pop, and our bus driver immediately pulled over and yelled, 'Everybody off! We're on fire!' "
Within a minute, Gallo said, the female bus driver had awakened everyone aboard, racing through the bus toward the back to alert all the students.
"She was so quick-acting -- she was awesome," said Gallo, who fled her seat so fast she had no time to find her boots when her feet hit the pavement outside. "She was the last person to leave the bus."
Storer said the bus driver did not want her name to be released to the media.
"The driver did exactly what she is taught to do," he said.
In March 2014, a Storer Coachways bus caught fire on Interstate 80 between Ashby and University avenues in Berkeley. According to a news report, the fire affected the engine compartment of the bus and smoke made its way into the passenger compartment. None of the 21 passengers was hurt.
USF spokeswoman Anne-Marie Devine Tasto said the school, which has partnered with Storer Coachways for at least five years, has never had an incident like this.
"No issues at all," she said. "We are so thankful everyone involved is safe and that the bus driver acted so swiftly."
She said the school believes the bus company's insurance will cover the cost of replacing the material goods lost.
Caltrans spokeswoman Deanna Shoopman said local firefighters, the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans were on the scene within 10 minutes. After the blaze was extinguished, the CHP closed down the right lane of traffic for at least a mile until almost 2 p.m., she said.
Caltrans needed to quickly move the students away from the shoulder.
"It was unsafe along the highway on the interstate," said Shoopman, who said the agency used several vans to transport the students to a Caltrans maintenance yard in Kingvale, where they waited until another Storer Coachways bus arrived at 1 p.m.
Firefighters salvaged as much of their belongings inside the bus as possible -- including Gallo's boots, now melted and smelling "terrible," she said.
"All of their luggage -- and everything they had packed with them -- burned," Shoopman said. "There were some very upset young adults."
The bus company treated all aboard to a meal at a nearby In-N-Out Burger, Gallo said, and then they were on their way home.
Devine Tasto said USF is following up with the students to offer counseling services in case they are feeling any trauma.
Gallo, who had last skied when she was 12 years old, said she'll make it up to the slopes some other time. But first, she said, she and her friends planned to go out to dinner Saturday night and "just celebrate life."