BERLIN – The WestPAC championship high school football game became secondary when the charter bus carrying the Portage Area High School team to Berlin Brothersvalley blew a tire and caught fire Friday evening.
The bus was filled with approximately 50 players, coaches and team personnel, according to Portage Athletic Director Jeremy Burkett, who was also on the bus.
All players and team personnel successfully were evacuated, and eventually were taken to the Snyder of Berlin Complex about 5 miles away from the accident site on Plank Road, which is on Route 219. The Berlin fire department responded to the scene.
The starting time of the game was pushed back one hour to 8 p.m.
“A tire blew. The bus driver pulled over. We noticed some flames and we evacuated the bus,” Burkett said. “Everyone was safe. The flames got a little bigger. The next thing you know, we had a full fire on the bus.
“At that point we were concerned about our kids’ safety. We made sure everyone was safe and everyone was. At that point, we weren’t even thinking about the game.”
The Pennsylvania State Police also responded, Burkett said.
Once the team was safe and it was determined the equipment was in good condition – including football helmets, shoulder pads and uniforms – the decision to play the game was made.
“I give a lot of credit to Berlin. They sent buses out for our kids and they sent trucks out for our stuff,” Burkett said. “They were more than gracious to help us out.”
Undefeated Berlin Brothersvalley entered Friday’s title game with nine wins. Portage’s lone loss of the season was to the Mountaineers earlier in the regular season.
“Absolutely, the game becomes secondary when something like this happens. It’s a scary situation,” Berlin Athletic Director Tanner Prosser said. “The first thing we wanted to find out is if everyone was safe. Once everyone was safe, we got a bus out to them.
“There was a concern over their equipment next. Fortunately their equipment was in good shape. We’re fortunate to be playing tonight.” Burkett said once the players were off the charter bus, the coaching staff steered them to a safe area.
“Luckily for us, there was a fence next to the place where it happened, and we got the kids behind the fence,” Burkett said. “We had enough coaches on the bus to take care of the kids and get them out of harms way.
“We waited for the authorities. The state police and fire department arrived and took care of matters and put out the fire. The Berlin School District, coaches and the fire department and police were excellent.”
Prosser said he learned of the accident after a group of Portage coaches and athletic staff that had arrived ahead of the bus in a separate vehicle received a phone call. He said he was informed at approximately 5 p.m.
“I contacted their athletic director, Jeremy (Burkett), and he explained the situation,” Prosser said. “We held up the gates for a few minutes because we weren’t sure we were going to be playing. That was at about 5:30. Jeremy called back 10 minutes later and said everything was OK.”
In a case of good timing, the school’s bus line had a representative nearby.
“Our bus guy was waiting to come in, so I grabbed him, he went out and got a bus and headed out there for them,” Prosser said. “A lot of people did a nice job and we’re fortunate to be playing.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @masty81.