RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Just one day after Richmond Public Schools (RPS) finalized its annual lease on a property on Chamberlayne Parkway, the school bus fleet maintenance garage was destroyed in a massive fire.

Authorities with the Richmond Fire Department (RFD) said the blaze broke out Wednesday morning. Crews first received calls reporting a structure fire and heavy smoke at approximately 6:27 a.m., and arrived on scene roughly three minutes later.

“A working fire was declared, and there was an individual in the building at the time, but that person was able to exit on their own,” RFD Public Information Manager Amy Vu told 8News. “Approximately five minutes after they got here, a second alarm was struck, and that was due to the size of the fire. That just meant that we had to bring in more crews.”

Vu said the department assumed defensive operations, working to extinguish the fire from the outside, and it was marked under control at approximately 7:37 a.m., about one hour after the first crews arrived on the scene.

Buses at the Richmond school bus garage on Chamberlayne Parkway destroyed by a massive fire. Credit: Forrest Shelor / 8News

An investigation is underway to determine how and where exactly the fire started. But Cory Webb, who was working nearby and said he called 9-1-1 when he saw smoke, described what he witnessed as first responders worked to get the blaze under control.

“I see smoke coming up out of the top of the building,” he said. “When they get here, there’s fire coming out of the building, and the tank exploded and everything. It was crazy.”

Webb said he heard three explosions.

“It was a lot of heat, and, all of a sudden, you just hear a boom, and we see a lot of smoke. It was kind of just like that. But I saw the gas line actually blow up, too, and that was quieter but more intense heat, and it was just like a torch going off,” he said. “I’m thinking one of the oil tanks or something is what caught on fire at the front bay, and that’s what it looked like to me.”

Buses at the Richmond school bus garage on Chamberlayne Parkway destroyed by a massive fire. Credit: Forrest Shelor / 8News

RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras confirmed that there were oxygen tanks, diesel tanks and acetylene inside the garage at the time of the fire.

“This is our fleet maintenance garage; basically where our buses go to get repaired,” he said. “There were some folks inside when they smelled smoke. Everybody got out. Everybody is safe.”

Kamras said that the school division has leased the property on Chamberlayne Parkway for nearly 20 years. A spokesperson for RPS confirmed to 8News on Wednesday that the annual lease was just finalized on Tuesday, mere hours before the fire broke out.

“We need to find another garage to be able to do our repairs as quickly as possible. So we’re already working on that as we speak, and, look, we’ll continue to adapt and rise to the moment, as we always do,” Kamras said. “Today’s the first day of summer school. So I was excited to go see the kids this morning. I still plan to do so.”

The superintendent noted that the 2021-22 academic year has been a challenging one for the school division. Back in February, the historic William Fox Elementary School also suffered a massive fire, leaving the building unusable until it could be stabilized and restored.

“We have faced a number of challenges. I’m sure we’ll face many more going forward,” Kamras said. “But the one thing I know about RPS — about our teachers, our bus drivers, everybody — is whenever we get knocked down, we get right back up, and that’s what we’re going to do today, and we will do every day going forward.”

Sources confirmed to 8News that five buses were destroyed in Wednesday’s fire, as well as RPS’ Lit Limo, which the 8News team helped construct in order to help students with their summer reading.

“There’s loss of buses, tools, things of that nature,” the superintendent said. “That’s insured by our insurance company. Of course, the property isn’t ours. So that’s going to be something for the owner to explore.”

City of Richmond property records show that the 3.4-acre property at 1903 Chamberlayne Parkway is owned by TRP Chamberlayne LLC. The current assessment listed the land value at $463,000, and the improvement value at $384,000. RPS holds its lease agreement with Virginia Landmark Corporation.

8News has reached out for information on how many buses were housed on the property at the time of the fire, and is awaiting a response.