ORLAND, Calif. — When they climbed on board the bus, most were strangers. Not friends, nor classmates.
They were called together by aspiration: They were headed to Humboldt State University through a program designed for underprivileged students. Most would be the first in their family to go to college.
They were called together, too, by fate: They were assigned to this bus because their last names began with the letters A through L.
A little after 5:30 on Thursday evening, now 500 miles into the trip, their bus carrying 48 people thundered past the fertile farms that line Interstate 5. A FedEx tractor-trailer veered across a wide median and struck the bus head-on. The impact shook nearby homes and sent a plume of black, acrid smoke billowing above the Sacramento Valley.
Authorities said Friday that 10 people were killed, including the drivers of both the truck and the bus, three adult chaperons aboard the bus and five students.
"Lives forever altered," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "Lives lost just as they were beginning to be transformed."
An additional 30 people, mostly students, were being treated at seven hospitals for a variety of injuries — burns, fractures, smoke inhalation.
Among the adults killed were two chaperons who had recently gotten engaged. Michael Myvett, 29, graduated in 2007 from Humboldt State. He and his girlfriend, Mattison Haywood, got engaged outside the Louvre in Paris over the holidays, a family friend said.
Myvette worked with disadvantaged youths at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Torrance and remained active with his alma mater.
"He was an extraordinary individual," said Kyle Farris, operations manager at the center.
A third chaperon who was killed had worked since his high school days in Chino, where he was a straight-A student, to help underprivileged kids go to college. The death of Arthur Arzola, 26, Humboldt State's Southern California admissions counselor, was confirmed by his stepmother.
"He wanted to make it an even playing field. He wanted them to have the same opportunities," said the stepmother, Stephanie Arzola. "He always just wanted to just help students be passionate about school and have them move on to higher education, make something of themselves, and have a career."
The students on the bus were headed to Humboldt State through a 20-year-old program called Preview Plus that seeks to enroll low-income students, many of whom would be the first in their families to attend college.
Each spring, the campus in remote, foresty Arcata welcomes more than 100 high school seniors, mainly from the Los Angeles, Fresno and San Francisco Bay areas, for a weekend.
Three busloads of roughly 120 students were headed to the campus on Thursday. Two left from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, including the one that crashed and another that was about two hours ahead. The bus that crashed had been delayed when it got in a separate accident, which one student described as a "fender bender," not long after beginning the trip. A third bus left Thursday from Fresno.
The students had been accepted to Humboldt State and were weighing school choices and financial aid offers. During the program, the teens are housed in dorms, given tours of the school and its clubs and meet with professors and older students. They were scheduled to visit the farmers market in downtown Arcata and join in a scavenger hunt.
The university pays for the trip. Historically, the program has been seen as important in part because the campus, nestled in a small, artsy city and surrounded by redwoods, can feel unsettling to students from low-income communities in the Los Angeles area. But Humboldt State is also a part of a 23-campus state university system built to cater to those very same students — "the students California needs to be successful going forward," CSU Chancellor Timothy White said Friday.
"The soul of the CSU has been cut deeply," he said.
Scores of investigators from local, state and federal agencies descended on the accident site on Friday.
The accident occurred in a long straightaway of the interstate. California Highway Patrol Officer Matthew Thompson said the FedEx truck, which had been southbound prior to the accident, came across the median "almost horizontally" before striking the bus.
The Highway Patrol said it was investigating several possible explanations for the crash, including whether the FedEx driver fell asleep or whether the truck suffered a mechanical failure or had been involved in a separate collision in the southbound lanes that caused it to veer across the median.
CHP investigators will be assisted by the National Transportation Safety Board, which dispatched a team on Friday. Investigators will use "sophisticated surveying and mapping equipment," along with 3-D diagraming, to reconstruct the crash, including roadway and weather conditions, Fredrick said.
But California Highway Patrol Northern Division Chief Ruben Leal cautioned the public that the investigation would be a "long, tedious process."
"We may not have some answers for months," he said.
The first light on Friday revealed the terrible tableau that had been created. On a roadside slope once coated in lush grass was a crater of scorched earth and a grotesque mass of metal. Some things were just gone — the fire was so hot, windows melted and rubber tires went up in smoke. Some things were recognizable — headrests of the bus seats were plainly visible.
The only bits of color amid the ashes pointed to the terrible road still ahead — bright yellow tarps strewn through the wreckage, covering the bodies, some incinerated to the point that DNA testing will have to be used to confirm their identity.
Students who survived the crash described a harrowing struggle to escape the charter bus in the moments following the impact. Authorities said the bus was engulfed almost immediately in a massive rust-orange fireball.
Jonathan Gutierrez, 17, said he was eager to sit at the front of the bus, but another student convinced him to sit in the back row. During the ride, students watched movies such as "Captain Phillips" and "Wolverine." They stopped twice for snacks, the last time in Sacramento, about 100 miles south of the crash site.
Gutierrez was trying to fall asleep. The impact sent him hurtling forward, opening a gash over his right eyebrow when he was hit by a plastic tray in the back of the seat in front of him.
He said he could see fire toward the front of the bus where some chaperons and students were sitting. The place where he almost had sat suffered the worst damage.
"The people in the front, you couldn't do anything about them," Gutierrez said.
It was hard to breathe from the smoke, he said, and "that's when people started panicking."
Some students escaped through an emergency exit, but others smashed windows. He said he climbed out a window and fell to the pavement.
Wearing only his socks — he had taken off his shoes while trying to fall asleep — he ran across the highway with other students.
"They were just yelling, 'Oh my God, what just happened?'" Gutierrez said.
Residents in neighboring houses who ran toward the accident site encountered a terrifying sight — an accident victim running along a fence, begging for help and engulfed in flames.
"His pants were on fire, his shoes were on fire," said Pomali Thitphaneth, a resident of the small neighborhood. "It was like a man on fire.... We were all on the other side, feeling helpless."
School and university officials were scrambling to reunite families. When parents learned of the accident, many raced from their workplaces and homes and headed north in cars and on planes. Others reported receiving knocks on the doors of their homes from investigators seeking dental records of their children.
In Riverside, twin sisters Marisa and Marisol Serrato both hoped to attend Humboldt State in the fall and took the trip to visit the campus for the first time.
The students were supposed to board the buses based on their last names — A through L on one bus, M through Z on another.
But there was some confusion, and a number of kids wound up on the other bus. In the case of the 17-year-old Serrato sisters, Marisol boarded the bus that left first and arrived uneventfully. Marisa was on the bus that crashed.
On Friday, the girl's family headed north, hoping to learn her fate. Adding to the panic and confusion, several students tweeted that they left their phones on the bus as they scrambled for safety, which is why they had not been able to contact their families right away.
"We've called the hospitals," said the girls' mother, also named Marisa. "They haven't been able to tell us anything."
While families scrambled to find their relatives, Orland did its best to care for the accident victims. Seven uninjured students spent Thursday night at the Veterans Memorial Hall, where the Red Cross set up cots.
"Some students slept," said Scott Gruendl, a county health official. "Some students couldn't sleep."
Juliana Gregory, who lives nearby and has four children of her own, brought homemade cookies.
"There's nothing we can really do," she said. "If we could, we'd give them a hug and tell them we're praying for them."
Megerian and St. John reported from Orland, Gold from Los Angeles.
Times staff writers Howard Blume, Adolfo Flores, Joseph Serna, Kate Mather, Jason Wells, Christine Mai-Duc, Larry Gordon, Ruben Vives, Stephen Ceasar, Dan Weikel, Carla Rivera, Ralph Vartabedian and Paloma Esquivel in Los Angeles; Marc Lifsher in Sacramento; and Melanie Mason in Chico contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times