The fire that destroyed a South Sanpete School District bus could have been worse - much worse.

If the fire had occurred a few minutes later, the bus would have been loaded with handicapped students - two in wheelchairs, the others strapped in their seats.Kerri Edwards, driver of the 18-passenger bus, which had room for two wheelchairs and was equipped with a lift, had started up the engine so that the bus would be warm before she started on her route to pick up handicapped students in the Gunnison-Centerfield area and deliver them to school days before Christmas.

During a brief absence while Edwards waited for the bus to become comfortable, a fire that started under the hood suddenly engulfed the vehicle in flames.

Before the Gunnison Volunteer Fire Department could arrive on the scene, all that remained of the bus was a blackened hulk.

"I offered a lot of silent prayers of thanksgiving that day," Edwards said.

Paul Gottfredson, South Sanpete District business manager, said the bus was insured through a state program. He said it will be replaced as soon as possible.

In the meantime, a similarly equipped Sevier School District bus, which brings handicapped students from that district to the handicapped program offered by the South Sanpete District, will pick up the two wheelchair children that Edwards transported.

She'll use her own car along the route the special bus had traveled to gather up the other children.

"I'll be giving the kids special hugs," she said, "in remembrance of what might have been."