ORLAND, Calif. — Two conflicting eyewitness accounts emerged Saturday as investigators delved deeper into the cause of the horrific collision between a truck and a charter bus that killed 10 and cast a pall over a college-acceptance trip to Humboldt State University.
A driver who was sideswiped moments before Thursday evening's fatal accident said she saw flames coming from beneath a FedEx freight truck as it veered across a grassy median toward disaster.
A man who lives next to Interstate 5, however, said he saw no flames from the truck before the crash and watched the twin-trailer FedEx vehicle swerve out of control after it made an abortive attempt to move into the fast lane.
Both witnesses said the truck veered sharply from southbound lanes, across the median and into a Silverado Stages charter bus, which carried 48 people, including 44 Southern California high school students.
"When they collided, it was boom!" said Ryan Householder, 31, who watched from his home, where he had been mowing his lawn. He said he was haunted by the screams of those who couldn't escape the burning bus.
A National Transportation Safety Board member said Saturday evening that the truck left no skid marks, on either the roadway or the median, as it veered into oncoming traffic. In contrast, more than 145 feet of tire marks indicated that the bus driver tried to stop and swerve to the right, said the NTSB's Mark Rosekind.
"That driver was clearly reacting to a situation with braking and a driving maneuver," he said.
Rosekind cautioned that it remained too early to tell what prompted the FedEx driver to leave the southbound lanes. The investigator said blood samples had been obtained from the drivers, both of whom died in the crash. The samples will be used to test for alcohol, drugs or medication.
The regulator confirmed that some of the victims were thrown from the bus. "We're going to look at whether seat belts might have kept them in place and whether that would have made a difference," Rosekind said.
Rosekind said a black-box-style electronic device was recovered from the bus and will be analyzed. The truck's device was destroyed, but other steps will be taken to analyze the machinery.
Rosekind said the bus was a "very new motor coach" — only about a month old. The FedEx truck was manufactured in 2007, he said.
The new details about the moments before the accident came as three more students, previously listed as missing, were confirmed dead. The toll includes five students, three adult chaperons and the still-unidentified drivers. Final, formal identification of remains could take several weeks.
"We have no one that's missing. All the names are accounted for. We just don't know which body goes with which name," said Larry Jones, sheriff and coroner for Glenn County, north of Sacramento. "And we don't know at this point what body to release to what family."
The sliver of uncertainty provided no solace to the families, who, Jones said, had "dealt with the reality of the loss."
Dorsey High School student Jennifer Bonilla, among those newly confirmed dead, was a devoted, self-motivated student who had a college scholarship in hand, according to staff at the Crenshaw-area school.
Teacher Noah Lippe-Klein had recently written a letter of recommendation for the teenager and praised "her ability to think critically about the world and her profound, college-level writing skills."
A member of the campus eco-club who participated in beach cleanups and environment walks in Baldwin Hills, Bonilla had been accepted into a number of schools and was excited about the Humboldt tour, Lippe-Klein said.
Ismael Jimenez and Denise Gomez — friends and fellow students at Animo Inglewood Charter High School — also were confirmed dead. The two 18-year-olds and a group of other friends had been close since middle school, where they liked to congregate around a favorite oak tree, a friend said.
Jimenez was an honor student who was passionate about art, constantly drawing and painting, his sister Evelin said. He drew pictures for everyone in his life — particularly horses for his mother and various scenes for his girlfriend of nearly three years. He was "beyond excited" to be bound for college and a career in art, his sister said.
Gomez was a music lover who played the guitar and led the Earth Club at the Inglewood school, said friend Frankie Martin, another Animo high senior. The Humboldt-bound student loved the outdoors and encouraged Martin to pursue his own college dreams.
"They were going to see their futures, and instead their life was cut short," Martin said. "At this point all we can hope for is that they're in a better place."
Evelin Jimenez said her parents told her Friday that they believed her brother was dead. She also said she was told by a cousin of Gomez's that her family had been convinced she was dead.
The students on the bus were part of the 20-year-old Preview Plus program, which brings low-income students — often the first in their families to go to college — to Humboldt State, the woodsy university on California's North Coast.
The bus involved in the crash was one of two that had left Union Station in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday for a weekend foray designed to help students finalize their decisions about attending the campus.
One of the most detailed accounts of the crash came from Householder, whose mobile home faces the southbound lanes of the interstate, where the FedEx truck was traveling. He said it was about 5:30 Thursday evening when he heard the screech of tires.
He looked up to see two cars braking hard as the FedEx truck tried to cut in front of them and into the fast lane. The truck driver appeared to have no room to get back to the slow lane because of the presence of a red van, Householder, a stay-at-home father of three, told The Times. He speculated that the truck driver thought he could bring the big rig back under control in the fast lane or median.
"It looked like he tried straightening out going into the fast lane, but all his weight and momentum shot him straight across the median," said Householder, who said he shared his account with the California Highway Patrol. "And he collided with that tour bus.... It was very ugly."
Bonnie and Joe Duran, who live near Tacoma, Wash., had just passed the charter bus and were heading north, according to the NTSB official, when the FedEx truck suddenly burst across the median.
"It was on fire already," Bonnie Duran, who was driving, said of the truck. She told NBC4-TV that the flames appeared to be coming from the lower rear of the truck cab.
She tried to veer her rented four-door Nissan Altima to the right, but it was too late. The FedEx truck sideswiped her, ripping off the rear passenger door. A moment later, the truck slammed into the charter bus. Both burst into flames.
Neither of the Durans was seriously injured.
For some 30 students injured in the accident, a long recovery has only begun. Miles Hill, 18, a senior at Renaissance Arts Academy in Eagle Rock, came so close to the flames that the hair on his arms and his eyebrows were singed. Airlifted to Enloe Medical Center in Chico, he was initially in critical condition with a head wound.
His father, Gaylord Hill of Mount Washington, flew north to be at the boy's side. He said the teen struggled through the night after the crash. "He couldn't sleep. He woke up in a cold sweat, he said, and saw flames," the elder Hill said.
On Saturday, the boy had had improved.
"He's feeling alive today," said the relieved father. "He didn't think he was going to make it."
Times staff writers James Rainey, Stephen Ceasar, Christine Mai-Duc, Victoria Kim and Kate Mather in Los Angeles contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times