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Bus driver who lost home to fire helped others escape fire 10 years ago

(MCT) — BLOOMINGTON — A bus driver for Connect Transit, who was credited with saving the lives of a family of five from a fire 10 years ago, described the feeling of losing his own home to fire last week as “overwhelming.”

Steve Thornton, his wife, Rebecca, and son, Reese, lost their home Jan. 24 at 19 Payne Place, and now co-workers are collecting money to help.

“It’s really devastating what happened,” said Mick Ferrell, president of Amalgamated Transit Union International Local 752. “He is well-liked and would give anything to anyone and that is why we have worked to set up an account.”

In December 2002, Thornton, while driving for what then was known as the Bloomington-Normal Public Transit System, noticed billowing smoke early one morning along his route on West Olive Street. He tracked down the source to a house and pounded on doors until the family of five was alerted and able to escape.

Because of that, he was recognized in a video honoring transit worker heroes at the 2004 Amalgamated Transit Union International convention.

On Jan. 24, Thornton was driving west on Vernon Avenue in Normal in his own car when he pulled over to allow a fire truck to roll past him. A few minutes later, he found the entrance to the Payne Place neighborhood blocked and he feared for the safety of his neighbors.

When he exited his car, he found firefighters working on his own house.

“I was shocked,” he said.

Fire investigators say a kitchen appliance malfunctioned and started the fire while no one was home. The home was declared a total loss, and damage was estimated at $85,000.

“One day you have everything you need and the next, you don’t have anything to your name,” Thornton said, who is on medical leave from his bus route. “It’s an overwhelming feeling, and until you live through the experience, you can just never understand it.”

The family has insurance, Thornton said, and is staying at a Bloomington-Normal hotel.

A fund to raise donations to help offset expenses has also been established.

“He is an excellent guy, a good guy and a good sports fan,” said friend and co-worker Brian Enata. “We call him Mr. Oakland Raider because he had this room of Oakland Raider memorabilia that was lost. But that’s not what he is known for. His passengers will tell you he is an excellent driver and really cares about everyone.”

The Thorntons plan to rebuild, in part, because they don’t want to leave the neighborhood.

“We have the greatest neighbors and we love them,” he said. “I am amazed at the outpouring of everyone in this community. The people of Bloomington-Normal are very special people.”

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