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CHP: Mystery remains why driver crashed FedEx big rig into tour bus

Driver was well rested and in good health; toxicology tests also revealed no alcohol or drugs in his system

After a 13-month investigation, the California Highway Patrol announced Friday that it could not determine why a FedEx truck driver veered across Interstate 5 in Northern California last year and slammed into a charter bus carrying high school students from the Los Angeles area.

During a news conference in Hacienda Heights, CHP officials said they were unable to confirm indications the truck driver may have fallen asleep or suffered a debilitating medical problem before the fiery crash that killed 10 and injured 39.

They concluded only that Tim Evans, 32, allowed his tractor-trailer to move across the southbound lanes of the highway in an unsafe manner, triggering the head-on collision on the northbound side. Evans and the bus driver died in the crash.

“It’s uncommon for us not to determine a cause,” said Chief Ruben Leal, commander of the CHP’s northern division. “We looked at everything. This was a real difficult case.”

CHP officials said they were hampered by the deaths of Evans and the bus driver, heavy damage to the vehicles and conflicting witness statements.

From the evidence, they said the FedEx truck was mechanically sound and Evans was well-trained. He had the proper certifications for a commercial driver and had no accidents or traffic violations.

Investigators added that he appeared to be in good health and well-rested before the accident. Toxicology tests revealed that he did not have alcohol or drugs in his system that could have affected his performance.

Victims and relatives of those killed in the accident said Friday that the CHP’s findings brought them some closure, but they remained concerned that they will never know the exact cause of the tragedy.

“It’s good to know some of the answers, but we haven’t gotten all the answers,” said Evelin Jimenez of Inglewood, whose brother Ismael was killed in the crash. “You could say this is closure,” she added, holding back her tears, “but from what the families still feel, there can never be closure.”

The crash occurred about 5:40 p.m. on April 10, 2014, when the FedEx truck pulling two 28-foot trailers drifted through the wide median of I-5 near Orland, where there was no barrier to prevent traffic from entering oncoming lanes.

After ripping through a row of oleander, the tractor-trailer continued into the northbound lanes where it struck the back of a Nissan sedan and the front of the Silverado Stages bus carrying 44 low-income high school students from Los Angeles and other cities in the region.

The group, which had departed from Union Station in downtown L.A., was on its way to Humboldt State University in Arcata for a weekend orientation program.

Both vehicles caught fire after impact, sending a plume of black, acrid smoke billowing above the Sacramento Valley. In addition to Evans and the bus driver, five students were killed along with three adult chaperons — two of whom were engaged to each other.

Of the injured, 30 were treated at seven hospitals for burns, fractures and smoke inhalation.

Survivors of the collision described a harrowing effort to escape as flames quickly engulfed the coach in a massive red-orange fireball. In the confusion, some students used emergency exits while others smashed windows to get out.

“My grandson, Michael Myvett Jr., was killed in the crash,” said Debra Loyd of Los Angeles, who attended the news conference. “Nothing will bring him back and nothing will ever replace the hole left in my heart.”

During the investigation, several witness statements suggested that the FedEx driver either suffered a serious medical problem or had fallen asleep while behind the wheel.

Another FedEx driver, who met with his co-worker in Weed several hours before the crash, told investigators that he looked “clammy” and pale. One bus passenger said that he saw the FedEx driver “out, head down” and “slumped toward the door” of his truck.

Two motorists told investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board that they saw no brake lights or maneuvering by the truck as the rig faded out of the slow lane and across the highway. One recalled seeing the vehicle’s left turn signal come on just before it started to veer.

CHP officials said there were other witness statements indicating there was nothing unusual about the driver and information about him being clammy and pale could not be explained.

“There could have been an undiagnosed medical condition, but that could not be determined,” said Sgt. Nathan Parson, a supervisor with the CHP’s accident team. “Fatigue was evaluated as well. It could have been a factor, but we could not prove it.”

The NTSB’s findings are scheduled to be released in July.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

7:34 p.m.: This post has been updated with more details and background on the crash.

4:45 p.m.: This post has been updated to include statements from highway patrol investigators.

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