The smoke began to fill the bus, so McKay took off a shirt. He and two teachers on the bus tore into pieces and soaked them with water. The children held the damp pieces of cloth in their mouths and breathed through them.
The fire had started early on the morning of Nov. 8, around 6:30 am, forcing many to evacuate Butte County.
McKay, 41, was worried from the start. He had seen forest fires before, he said. "But the fact that it was happening in a thousand places was unheard of," McKay told CNN in a Sunday interview at a park in Chico, a city southwest of Paradise.
He saw flames approaching the school in both directions.
His son, mother and girlfriend had already evacuated to a hotel in Chico that morning. "It freed me to focus completely on this terrifying situation," McKay said.
Members of most other students had already learned from their children.
But almost two dozen students were arrested because the members of his family had not arrived at school. McKay discussed the evacuation of the students with the director of Ponderosa.
It looked like Armageddon & # 39;
Abbie Davis, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher at Ponderosa, and Mary Ludwig, 50, who teaches second grade, evacuated with McKay and the students.
Ludwig recalled that "the sky was really menacing."
"It was very scary. It looked like Armageddon," she said Sunday.
"It just felt like we were going to Mordor," recalled McKay, referring to the reign of evil Lord Sauron in the books and movies "Lord of the Rings."
As they left school on smoke-filled roads, the bus was stuck in the traffic jam trying to leave Paradise. Should they leave the bus, they wonder?
Davis and Ludwig walked down the hallway, comforting the students.
When the smoke intensified, the young lungs filled up. One student said he felt tired. Davis saw other children napping.
The adults had to improvise. There was only one bottle of water on the bus. McKay took off his shirt. They tore and wiped the strips of cloth with water, so the students could use them to breathe properly, they remembered.
"That seemed to help," McKay said.
During the journey, McKay and the teachers also created their own emergency plan: Joining small children with large children. Take the roll. Obtain phone numbers Review how to operate the emergency exits, the first aid kit, and the fire extinguisher.
& # 39; Paradise is lost & # 39;
Fourth grader Charlotte Merz, 10, said she tried to stay calm and recalled "going to my happy place" on the journey.
Smoke made the vision difficult. "It was so crazy, and there were fires left and right, everywhere you looked," she said.
McKay said, "That's when we realized – it's a silly statement, but Paradise is lost."
Rescuing another teacher
At one point, a car passed them, McKay recalled. It looked like someone was punching the bus, Davis said. They saw other traffic collisions.
Along the way, they caught a passenger. She was a preschool teacher at an elementary school in the nearby town of Biggs, whose car had broken.
Davis said she thought she would die several times along the journey. At one point they prayed, Ludwig said.
Hours later, parents and children were reunited. McKay said that Davis's husband hugged him so tightly that he "almost lifted me off the floor."
Recounting his escape on Sunday, McKay was modest. Safety is an important part of the role of a bus driver, he said, and he must have paid attention to those classes.
But Davis and Ludwig said McKay was a real hero.
"We had the sky bus driver," Ludwig said.