A NICE driver rescued a disabled passenger from a burning minibus Thursday in Plainview, carrying the woman to safety when the wheelchair lift lost power minutes before the vehicle was engulfed by flames.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done because I wasn’t getting down those steps,’’ said passenger Cindy March, of Farmingdale. The driver, Jean Jeune, ‘‘didn’t think twice. ... and he carried me down.
“I said, Thank you very much, you’re my hero, give me a hug,’’ said March, 54, who has spinal weakness and narrowing of the spinal canal.
‘‘For me, it was the only thing I could do: get her out. Forget the wheelchair,” said Jeune, 46, who has been driving for NICE for nine months.
He said the vehicle passed the usual morning inspection and that there was no indication of a problem throughout his shift.
Robert Salerno, chief of the Plainview Fire Department, said “it will probably be impossible” to pinpoint an exact cause because of the extent of the damage to the vehicle.
The State Department of Transportation’s Public Transportation Safety Board was notified, sent a representative to the scene and is investigating the incident, NICE officials said.
Jeune, an Able-Ride bus operator for the Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE, was driving March and her health-care aide back to March’s home after a therapy session when the odor of smoke filled the minibus.
“I told the driver, ‘I don’t trust what is going on’ and that he should pull to the side, and he did,” said the caretaker, who declined to give her name.
Shortly after the small bus pulled over on Manetto Hill Road just south of the Northern State Parkway, flames began shooting from its engine, the woman said. “That’s when we realized how serious it is.”
After the bus lost power, Jeune said, the vehicle’s electric wheelchair lift became inoperable. As the flames quickly spread, March screamed: “Oh my God! I’m going to die!” according to Jeune.
“I said: ‘Calm down. We’re going to get out of here safe,” said Jeune, a father of three originally from Haiti who now lives in Deer Park. Jeune took March in his arms, lifted her from the chair, and carried her to safety, resting her on a lawn in front of the Parkway School.
Jeune said March, who was transported home in another NICE vehicle, was “grateful.”
“She was crying. She said, ‘You are my hero. You saved my life,’” said Jeune, who credits his NICE training and God that nobody was hurt in the blaze.
NICE spokesman Jack Kzhous said March contacted him directly to express her gratitude for Jeune’s heroics. “It was the quick actions of the driver that saved the day,” fire chief Salerno added.
Kzhous said NICE has already begun work to replace March’s wheelchair.
As for Jeune, he plans to get behind the wheel again Friday.
“I would not be here if God was not by my side,” Jeune said. “We would all be gone.”
With Danielle Ohl