SOMERSET, Pa. — Members of rock band Relient K had a rude awakening on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at about 3:20 a.m. Thursday.
Asleep on their tour bus, en route to a show in Illinois, they were roused by the bus driver yelling for them to exit the bus immediately. It was on fire.
While the band — which includes Stark County natives Matt Thiessen and Matt Hoopes — and crew members escaped uninjured, the damage was extensive.
Fire Chief Terry Shaffer of the Shanksville Volunteer Fire Department said the fire started in the engine compartment located just below the rear lounge of the 12-bunk tour bus.
“The driver told our people he was having trouble with the engine,” Shaffer said. “They came up a steep mountain shortly before this, so they may have been trying to get to the next exit.”
The fire happened just east of the Somerset exit on the turnpike. Shaffer said band members were “lucky to get out of the bus. The fire was going pretty good when (firefighters) got there.”
The blaze and attendant smoke and water damaged destroyed the band’s instruments, sound equipment and tour merchandise, plus the members’ laptop computers, cell phones, cameras, iPods, clothing and other personal items.
The flames were spotted by vocalist Thiessen and a friend of his, who were hanging out in the rear of the bus and alerted the driver.“It was pandemonium. Everyone was screaming. We thought the bus might blow up,” Thiessen said Thursday afternoon, calling from Somerset.
“Flames were shooting outside all the way up,” Relient K road manager Scott Cannon said.Outside the bus, “We were just gawking and kind of laughing. It was all so cinematic,” Thiessen said. “There was the night sky with all this light and this fireman kneeling and hacking at the top of the bus with an ax.”
Fire engulfed the bus within a few minutes after the evacuation, Cannon said. A trailer being pulled behind the bus, containing the instruments and merchandise, also caught fire.“
The back half of the bus burned and the front half of the trailer,” Cannon said, adding that firefighters closed the highway for about 45 minutes.
Cannon declined to give a dollar estimate for the losses. The bus and trailer were leased. “It’s going to be substantial. We’re sorting through everything right now at the lot where they towed the bus,” he said.
Thiessen said his items alone, including a laptop containing about 100 unfinished songs, tallied up to about $7,000.
Relient K performed Wednesday night for an estimated 75,000 fans at Creation Northeast, an outdoor Christian rock festival in Mount Union, Pa. The fire caused the band to cancel its Thursday night headlining slot at the Cornerstone Festival, a major Christian event in Bushnell, Ill.
The band is planning to perform its scheduled concert Saturday night in Greeley, Colo., Cannon said, following a day in Nashville, Tenn., its base of operations these days.
Founded in Canton, Relient K has released five albums in seven years, three of them certified gold. On June 21, the band headlined the Alive Festival at Clay’s Park Resort.
With characteristic wit, singer-songwriter Thiessen assessed Thursday’s fire. “It’s funny to be onstage playing for 75,000 people having a great time, at the height of your element,” he said. “Then hours later standing outside by a burning bus with no shoes on, feeling basically like a refugee.”