Four Southern California operators are figuring out what’s next after collectively losing 21 buses in a massive blaze.
Operator Chris Sanchez says he awoke the morning of Feb. 26 to his phone blowing up with calls from family and friends, alerting him that his bus yard was on the news. An early-morning fire consumed a block of businesses — including Sanchez’s — and homes in Compton, near South Central Los Angeles, before it was contained.
He lost 10 vehicles, nearly half of his fleet. He lost eight motorcoaches — a Prevost, an MCI and six Temsas — along with two of his wheelchair lift-equipped school buses from Thomas Built Buses. Twelve buses were saved. Most of the fleet had been grounded, but a few of the buses were active. They were being used for military runs, a weekly tour and moving special needs students for a local school district. He doesn’t expect to replace the vehicles until the end of the year.
Sanchez leases parking spaces to three other companies. One is Aju Tours, a Korean operator with eight buses and a Sprinter van that mostly does tours. The others are owner-operators Rabbit Express Shuttle, with one bus, and Luizen Tours USA, with two buses. They all lost their fleets in the fire.
His company, TLC Luxury, which does business as TLC Luxury Transportation, is a small, family-owned business that provides luxury charter bus and school bus services.
Pre-pandemic, Sanchez had a workforce of 50 employees.
“2019 was a really really good year for us, and then 2020 hits,” said Sanchez. “We were starting to see some signs of activity here in California. My school buses were operating, and we were doing small tours when then the fire happened.”
Like most in the industry, his business has struggled during the past year due to the pandemic. He estimates business was down 95%, but demand for his buses was starting to return when tragedy struck.
“I am devastated beyond words and still in shock,” said Sanchez, who is still sorting out what insurance will cover. In the meantime, he launched an online fundraiser to help cover immediate costs.
Vicki Bowman, CBA’s executive director, said the organization wanted to do something to help the operators even though they aren’t members.
“These are such unprecedented times that CBA wanted to really rally around the California motorcoach industry and support them because this is over and above what they’re already going through. Any little thing that we can do to be supportive, we’re really happy to do,” Bowman said.
While authorities haven’t determined the cause of the fire that started in a pallet yard, early reports indicate it might be tied to a homeless encampment in a nearby alley. The fire consumed five businesses including two pallet yards and a mattress company, causing millions in damages. Sanchez is relieved no one died in the blaze.
He learned that water pressure efforts hampered firefighters’ efforts to put out the massive blaze. They had to wait about 20 minutes for the city to fix the issue, he said.
“They probably would have been able to save my yard, but some of the fire hydrants were closed off in the street or had no water pressure. So they had to call the city and open everything up, and there was a long delay. By that time, the fire jumped over to our property,” Sanchez said.
He appreciates the industry reaching out to help.
“Any support and donations during this time to help support my business and expenses to rebuild and repair my yard is more than appreciated. I do not have any other words than thank you,” he said.
Sanchez is hoping CERTS Act and Paycheck Protection Program funds will help him survive as he rebuilds. He applied for the second round PPP and is awaiting to hear word on that.
‘Fell in love’ with bus industry
He grew up in his family’s Orange County trucking business and switched to the passenger side in 2006, beginning with a position in reservations dispatch and working his way up to operations VP.
“I had an opportunity from some friends who were in the limousine and bus industry. I came over and I just fell in love with it. I just decided to really put a lot of effort into it,” Sanchez said.
He opened his business in 2017 after working for other bus companies. He originally worked with Ryan’s Express Transportation Services Inc., which was acquired by Arizona-based Michelangelo Leasing Inc. and then by the California-based Silverado Stages. After going through the ownership changes, Sanchez decided to branch out on his own.
He likes working big events, from conventions and trade shows to sporting events such as the Super Bowl and the Olympics.
“I love being on-site at those big events,” Sanchez said. “I do a lot of big events in Las Vegas where we bring in up to 150-plus buses. I just really enjoyed putting all that together. I enjoy working with the drivers.”