ORLAND, Calif. -- Investigators found no physical evidence that a FedEx freight truck was on fire before it collided with a charter tour bus in Northern California last week, killing 10 people, authorities said Sunday.
"Our fire expert reviewed the median and the highway, and found no physical evidence of fire before the impact,” said Mark Rosekind, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Those findings contradict the eyewitness accounts of a couple whose Nissan Altima was sideswiped by the truck. The car's driver said she saw flames coming from beneath the FedEx freight truck as it veered across a grassy median toward her vehicle.
“Nothing is ruled out yet,” Rosekind said. “We’re giving you what we know."
Rosekind provided more information on the driver of the FedEx truck tractor, whom he did not name. The driver was based in Sacramento and earlier on the day of the accident had taken a load of freight to a town just south of the Oregon border. The driver picked up two semitrailers — one partly loaded, the other empty— and was returning to Sacramento when the accident occurred.
He said the NTSB was in the process of learning the exact nature of the contents being hauled by the truck to find out, in particular, if it was carrying any hazardous material.
Rosekind said looking at “fatigue, distraction and other human performance issues” is a priority.
“We’re going to go over that driver’s last 72 hours at least,” Rosekind said. “In this case, we don’t have somebody to interview. And so we what we have to do is to rely on other forms of information to tell what’s going on. So we know, for example, if somebody’s off a certain time, but that cellphone is in use for a lot of that time, they may not have had a lot of opportunity to sleep. Or in this case, we’re going to take a look at use during their actual work period. "
Another witness who lives next to Interstate 5 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 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. The students were headed to Humboldt State University to take part in an orientation program.
"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."
Rosekind said 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.
"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.
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.
Rosekind said investigators are expected to remain on the scene for five to ten days. Much of the investigation is now shifting to Los Angeles, where officials will be meeting with Silverado Stages, the company that owned and operated the bus. Others will interviewing student survivors of the accident, mainly in the Los Angeles area.
It could take months for the board to issue its final report on the accident, Rosekind said. A preliminary report will be released in 30 days.