It remained unclear whether the FedEx driver was somehow
distracted or lost consciousness, or whether a mechanical failure
occurred when his truck swerved across the median of Interstate 5
and slammed head-on into the motor coach full of students from the
Los Angeles area on Thursday.
The California Highway Patrol also raised the possibility that a
separate collision on the truck's side of the highway might have
been a factor in Thursday evening's fatal crash.
According to early highway patrol accounts of the accident, the
truck side-swiped a car after crossing the center divider but before
hitting the bus.
Two witnesses, Bonnie and Joe Duran, who were reported to be in the
clipped car, told California media outlets that the truck was on
fire before the collision.
"I was heading along in the outside lane and I looked over and saw
the FedEx truck coming straight for me and he was in flames
already," Bonnie Duran told a local CBS-affiliate.
Reuters could not immediately contact the Durans and a California
Highway Patrol spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests
A powerful explosion unleashed by the impact was so loud it was
heard throughout the nearby community of Orland, about 90 miles
north of Sacramento, said Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones.
Among the dead were the two drivers, as well as five high school
students and a college recruiter on their way north to visit
Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, as part of a
program to help disadvantaged college hopefuls.
More than 30 others were injured in the wreck.
"We don't know whether the FedEx driver had fallen asleep, whether
he experienced a mechanical failure with his vehicle or whether
there was a separate collision on the southbound side that caused
him to lose control," said Lieutenant Scott Fredrick, the lead
Highway Patrol investigator.
A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety
Board (NTSB) began arriving on Friday morning to gather evidence for
that agency's independent review of the accident.
NTSB member Mark Rosekind told a news conference late in the day he
expected his team to remain on-site for about two weeks and would
not speculate on the probable cause of the crash.
He said the NTSB probe would examine human factors as well as "the
machine and the environment," including highway design elements,
vehicle inspection records and driver training and medical records.
The FedEx truck, which was hauling two semi-trailers, was mostly
consumed in the fire, but Rosekind said there were sufficient
remains of both drivers for authorities to have collected samples
for blood and toxicology analysis.
"So right now, one of the things we're in the process of doing is
seeing whether or not those required samples were actually
collected," he added.
The fire was so intense that it could be days or weeks before some
of the bodies can be identified, and investigators will have to rely
on dental records or in some cases DNA testing, he said.
Bonnie Kourvelas, a spokeswoman for FedEx Corp, said the company was
aware that one of its trucks was involved in the crash and is
"cooperating fully with authorities."
[to top of second column]
TWO OTHER BUSES ARRIVED SAFELY
The stricken motor coach was one of three buses of students
traveling from Southern California to participate in a spring break
recruitment program at Humboldt State. The two other buses had
arrived safely at the campus before the third bus crashed, Rosekind
Nestled near the redwoods about 100 miles south of the
Oregon border, the university every year invites high school seniors
from disadvantaged backgrounds or who may be the first in their
families to attend college to tour the campus.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in Southern
California, said some of the 19 students from its high schools who
were on the tour rode on the ill-fated bus, but it could not say
whether any of them were among the victims.
Apart from the driver, the bus was carrying 44 to 48 students and
several chaperones, highway patrol spokeswoman Lacey Heitman said.
About 34 people were taken by air and land ambulances to hospitals
with a variety of injuries, police said.
"They are traumatized, absolutely," another patrol spokeswoman,
Tracy Hoover, said. "Most of them have scratches, cuts, burns,
contusions and lacerations."
Among those killed was Humboldt State recruiter Arthur Arzola, 26,
who worked for the university out of the Southern California
community of Rancho Cucamonga, the Sacramento County coroner said on
In a biography on the school's website, Arzola characterized himself
as hard-working, compassionate and friendly, and described the
university as offering "incredible opportunities that change the
world for the better."
A recently engaged couple serving as chaperones were also among the
dead, local media reported.
Jonathan Gutierrez, 17, told NBC's "Today" show that after the crash
the bus filled with smoke and students broke windows to escape. "It
was a very surreal moment," he said.
"All of a sudden I heard people screaming," said Gutierrez, who had
been asleep before the impact.
Pictures from the scene showed the bus reduced to a burned-out
chassis resting sideways across the highway. Yellow tarps were
draped over what appeared to be bodies in the wreckage.
"The big rig and the bus were both engulfed in flames. You are
talking about two vehicles that are destroyed. There is hardly
anything left of the truck," Hoover said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Dana Feldman, Dan
Whitcomb and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Eric Johnson in
Seattle; additional reporting by Laila Kearney in San Francisco and
Colleen Jenkins from North Carolina; writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Cynthia Johnston, Richard Chang, Gunna Dickson, Ken Wills
and Pravin Char)
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