A COACH carrying 21 students was gutted by fire this morning near British Camp in the Malvern Hills.

The students escaped unharmed, thanks to the quick thinking of coach driver Martin Harris, who stopped the coach and led the students to safety.

The drama began at about 8.30am, when the coach, a regular service taking students from Worcester, Malvern and Ledbury to Hartpury College near Gloucestershire, was ascending the A449 towards British Camp.

Lucy Conway, of Aston's Coaches of Kempsey, which runs the service, said: "The driver noticed the vehicle started lacking in power, and then he saw black smoke in the rear-view mirror, coming from the engine compartment.

"He stopped the coach, got all the students safely off, and called 999. Then he got the students to safety at the hotel at British Camp."

Fire crews from Malvern, Ledbury and Worcester were sent to the scene, on the Malvern side of British Camp.

Fire fighters wearing breathing apparatus used hose reel jets and foam to control the blaze, nut could not prevent the coach being largely destroyed. Motorists were told to find alternative routes while the fire-fighting operation was under way.

"Our managing director and staff from the garage were on the scene as soon as they could bet there, and we also sent another two coaches to make sure the students got to college," she said.

"We can't praise or driver too highly, he kept cool and got all the students to safety completely unharmed. We make sure all our drivers are trained for emergency situations, but we're still really grateful to him."

She said that the coach, a 49-seater Scania century, was a write-off.

"It's too early to say for sure, but it may have been an electrical fault," she said. "We will be investigating the cause thoroughly.

"We are all just very grateful that no-one was hurt."