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Truck was on fire before it hit students' bus, witnesses say

California Bus Crash (2014)

ORLAND, Calif. -- Two witnesses said Friday that a FedEx truck was on fire before it hit a tour bus filled with high school students in Northern California, killing 10.

Bonnie and Joe Duran, whose car was hit by the big rig before it collided with the bus Thursday on Interstate 5 in Orland, told several TV stations that they saw flames coming from the truck as it crossed the center median.

“I was heading along the outside lane. And I looked over and saw the FedEx truck coming right for me and it was on fire already,” Bonnie Duran told KCBS radio.

Duran told KTLA-TV that when the truck hit the bus, there were a series of explosions.

Federal traffic safety investigators will be paying special attention to fire safety issues as well as whether crash victims were able to escape from the burning motor coach.

Students in the bus have said riders broke windows to escape the fire.

“The worst thing for the NTSB is to show up, know that we’ve issued recommendations from a previous accident where lives have been lost … and find out [that] if those recommendations had been closed and enacted, lives could have been saved,” said Michael Rosekind, an NTSB board member who traveled with the investigation team to Orland.

He said he expected investigators to remain in the area for one to two weeks gathering physical evidence and seeking out witnesses to the crash.

Rosekind cautioned that the federal agency was only beginning its work and has few answers at this point about what happened.

“While on scene, we will not be determining a probable cause or speculating about the probable cause of this accident,” he said. He pointed out that there was no hard barrier between the opposing lanes of the freeway.

Those are required only if lanes are within 50 feet of each other. The interstate lanes where the accident occurred were 60 feet apart, making barriers optional.

Five students and five adults, including both drivers, were killed and more than 30 people were injured when the southbound FedEx truck crossed the median and hit the bus head-on late Thursday afternoon, officials said. Both vehicles were consumed in flames. 

Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones said some of the victims were so badly burned that it would take medical and dental records to positively identify them.

The bus was one of three in a caravan heading to Humboldt State; two originated from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and the third from Fresno.

It was not immediately clear which Los Angeles-area students were on which bus.

Students on the two buses from Los Angeles were supposed to be divided into two groups: last names beginning with the letters A to L on one bus, M to Z on another, Humboldt State spokesman Frank Whitlatch said. But the teenagers "did what 17-year-olds do," and switched vehicles to sit with their friends.

Only one victim -- Arthur Arzola, a 26-year-old Humboldt advisor -- has been positively identified by coroner's officials. Relatives and school officials have identified a few of the others who have not been accounted for.

At Norte Vista High School in Riverside, a cloud hung over students preparing for prom night as they worried about the whereabouts of classmate Marisa Serrato, whose family told reporters she has been missing since the crash.

Marisa and her twin sister, Marisol, both seniors, chose to skip the dance to take the trip to Humboldt, said a classmate who gave only his first name, Elmer.

"We just don't know if they've found her," he said.

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