ORLAND, Calif.--The first family arrived at 7:30 the morning after the crash, looking for answers on what happened to their loved ones in the fiery collision on Interstate 5 between a FedEx truck and a tour bus full of high school students.
It was up to Larry Jones, a 40-year law enforcement veteran getting ready to retire at year's end after 10 years as sheriff of Glenn County, to sit them down and tell them: the process will take time and patience.
“Of course they asked the question 'Why' -- and we had to explain to them that [the victims] have been burned beyond recognition," Jones said Saturday. "It's very emotional. They're starting to realize their loved one is deceased and that we can't be 100% certain.”
One anguished family could not comprehend what he meant by “burned beyond recognition” and asked to see the remains. Jones had to tell them no.
“That would be a memory you wouldn't want any family member to have as the final image of their loved one or their child,” he said.
By Saturday, the list of the deceased became apparent by process of elimination: those who were on the bus headed to Humboldt State University but were still unaccounted for. The county had completed autopsies on four of the nine bodies by Saturday afternoon – a 10th person died at a hospital in another county.
What remained was the grim process of determining, Jones said, “which body goes with which name.”
For that, Jones and his staff had to send grieving families on a hunt for dental records. Cheek swabs were also taken from each family as a backup measure in case the dental records were insufficient for a positive identification.
He then told the families, most of them from the L.A. area, to return home and wait, giving them his personal cellphone number for any questions they may have. Jones said he tried to prepare the family for a second shock they will feel when there is final confirmation of the death.
“There's always that last glimmer of hope that people hold on to," he said. "But I think the majority of them have dealt with the reality of the loss."
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