The California Highway Patrol made the recordings public on
Thursday as investigators returned to the scene of the accident,
painstakingly driving a pristine white tour bus back and forth over
the charred and bubbled surface of Interstate 5 in an effort to
reconstruct the April 10 collision.
"Whatever is on the freeway is on fire," a man is heard telling
emergency dispatchers on one of the recordings. "I just heard an
explosion, but now I hear sirens. I'm running over to see what it
Five high school students and five adults, including the two
drivers, died when the FedEx tractor trailer swerved across the
highway median and slammed head-on into a motor coach filled with
about 50 Los Angeles-area teenagers on their way to visit Humboldt
State University in Arcata, California.
A blast unleashed by the impact was so loud that it was heard
throughout nearby Orland, an agricultural community about 90 miles
north of Sacramento.
Authorities said Thursday they still have not determined what caused
the freight truck to careen through the tall, thick bushes growing
along the center of the divided interstate and plow directly into
the path of the motor coach.
In an audio replay of the experiences neighbors recounted from the
moments after the crash, 911 operators can be heard telling the
callers to stay away from the scene, and that emergency personnel
were already arriving.
Carla Lopez, 17, and her mother live just a few feet away from the
highway in a neighborhood of modest houses so close to the accident
site that some residents fretted that one of the vehicles could have
come flying off the road into their homes.
POWERLESS TO HELP
On Thursday, they clung to each other next to a makeshift memorial
by the side of the interstate, watching Highway Patrol drivers
maneuver a borrowed bus and FedEx tractor-trailer back and forth
along the road.
On the clear, sunny afternoon last week when the collision occurred,
the family heard a noise and ran outside, the teenager recalled.
"We couldn't help because the bus kept exploding," Lopez said
quietly. "So we couldn't get near it."
The scene was all fire and pandemonium, said Glenn County Sheriff
"People don't realize how easily it could have been everyone on that
bus who died," Jones said. "They were on fire. The girls' hair was
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Had it not been for the relative youth and flexibility of the
passengers, and for two students who managed to kick out the windows
of the bus, everyone aboard the bus might have perished, Jones said.
"If this had been a bus full of older people headed to the casinos
or something, they would have all died," he said. "It's just by the
grace of God that we have these survivors."
At a news conference at the crash site on Thursday, officials said
it could be months before they know what caused the crash.
Investigators trying to determine the presumed speed of the
colliding vehicles slowed traffic on the interstate — the main West
Coast highway from San Diego to Washington state — running a
stand-in bus and truck past each other repeatedly, and taking
measurements. Another test checked how far the bus would skid if the
brakes were applied at highway speeds.
Nearby, three small memorials shone in the bright sunlight of the
hot Sacramento Valley afternoon. One consisted of a single red
flower, planted in a square of orange emergency tape out on the
highway where workers had hauled away the last of the debris from
the crash earlier Thursday morning.
The largest, pressed up against a chain-link fence erected to keep
pedestrians off of the freeway, featured a cross made of yellow
blossoms, vases of red, purple and vanilla-colored flowers and 35
Above these hung posters, some signed by relatives of the dead and
others by residents of Orland. A palette of paints with brushes
attached was taped on to the poster, in memory of a teenaged artist
among the victims.
"To my dear cousin," someone had written on the poster, "It was
early for you to go."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Ken Wills)
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