As many as 24 evacuees trying to escape the impending visit of Hurricane Rita, were killed early Friday in a bus fire on a highway near Dallas. The official death toll was unknown, but authorities said more than 40 people were on the bus that was stuck on a gridlocked Interstate 45.
According to one report, the evacuees were elderly patients from a nursing home in the Houston area. Mechanical problems may have intially caused the fire, but oxygen tanks on the bus for the passengers then reportedly started exploding.
I-45 runs more than 250 miles from Galveston through Houston to Dallas. The crash site is roughly 17 miles southeast of downtown Dallas.
As for Rita, while meteorologists are still not saying for sure where Hurricane Rita will touch down in the next 24 hours, a slight change in course during the day on Thursday and into the evening may spare both Houston and Galveston, Texas from a direct hit.
Rita dropped to a Category 3 hurricane during the day on Friday (sustained winds at 125 mph), with her sights now set on areas such as Beaumont and Port Arthur. Houston and Galveston still are not out of danger, and officials stressed that even if the storm diminishes in size, death and destruction are certainly a possibility.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Rita also brought rain to already battered New Orleans, sparking fears that the city’s damaged levees would fail and flood the city all over again.
As of 8 a.m. ET, Rita was situated about 260 miles southeast of Galveston, and 220 miles south-southeast of Cameron, Louisiana.
The cities of Galveston and Houston, Texas, were under evacuation orders, with officials requesting people move further inland. Millions began streaming northward on Wednesday. The normal 45-minute drive from Galveston to Houston became a five-hour commute. Interstate 45 heading north out of Houston was turned into an outbound-only evacuation route by state officials. Travel time to Austin from Houston, normally a three-hour or less drive, was reported to take as much as 19 hours by Thursday.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has requested residents from Corpus Christi to the Beaumont area voluntarily evacuate immediately. Texas National Guard troops that were in Louisiana helping with the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, returned home to the Lone Star State to help prepare for Rita’s visit.
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