A school bus with 11 students aboard ran off the road and slammed into a tree Thursday afternoon in Anaheim Hills, leaving the driver and two students critically injured.
The yellow school bus from El Rancho Charter School in the Orange Unified School District appeared to swerve and pick up speed before coming to a stop amid trees on a grassy hill along East Nohl Ranch Road by the Anaheim Hills Golf Course, according to witnesses. Officials said the bus had left an after-school function.
The witnesses recalled a chaotic scene as dust filled the twisted bus and students screamed for help, even as they scrambled for safety through an emergency exit at the rear of the vehicle.
"They were crying, saying, 'I'm hurt! Help me!' " said Claudia Matten, who was among several Good Samaritans who helped the middle school students leave the bus.
A total of six people were taken to hospitals, including the two critically injured students and the driver. The two students' injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, the California Highway Patrol said. Three other students with minor injuries also were taken to hospitals, officials said.
The six remaining students were released at the scene to family or friends. "They might have had scratches or bruises," CHP spokesman Officer Florentino Olivera said.
The driver was conscious after firefighters pulled him from the front of the bus. His name has not been released.
Olivera said the CHP was launching an investigation to determine the cause of the crash. He said preliminary evidence indicated that the driver may not have hit the brakes before plowing into the tree.
"I don't see any skid marks. It looks like he went straight into the tree," Olivera said.
As it moved along East Nohl Ranch Road, the bus suddenly picked up speed, according to student Solymar Colling, 14, who was sitting in the third row.
"It started going up fast, we went up and then it hit the tree," Solymar said. "People were screaming."
She said she flew into the seat across from her as the bus hit the tree. "I started looking for my phone," she recalled, "so I could call 911 and say we need to get off the bus."
Tyler Fabozzi, 17, a senior at Canyon High School, said he was driving next to the bus when it swerved into his lane and suddenly swerved back.
Tyler continued to drive alongside the bus when it suddenly drove up the grassy hill and knocked down the tree. He parked his truck and ran up the hill to help the students. He found the fuel door near the emergency hatch and turned off the gas line, he said.
Solymar said she and the other students were inside the bus for a minute or two before they started to make their way to the back where someone had opened the emergency exit.
Ellen Johnson, transportation supervisor for Orange Unified, said the bus was equipped with seat belts and that students "are directed by the bus driver to put them on."
Olivera said the CHP conducted a safety inspection of the bus in October and that it "passed with flying colors."
Times staff writers Paloma Esquivel and Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.