Dazed, red-eyed and stuffed with donated chocolate chip cookies, about 30 schoolmates headed back to Mexico on Thursday evening, grateful to be alive after their field trip to Disneyland was shattered by a harrowing crash on Interstate 10.
Just before midnight Wednesday, the sixth- and seventh-graders from the border city of Mexicali were headed home on a school bus with 10 teachers and parents. As the group headed through a pass in the undulating foothills near Yucaipa, a tractor-trailer rear-ended the bus, flattening the back four rows of seats and injuring 22 people. A handful remained overnight in local hospitals with injuries that were not life-threatening.
Initially, the accident scene was chaos, said California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Kim Lightfeldt.
The eastbound lanes of Interstate 10, flooded with fuel and oil, were closed as injured children and adults were lined up in a makeshift triage station. Six screaming children were trapped in the wreckage for more than an hour while rescuers cut a hole in the side of bus.
By dawn, it was clear that none of the injuries were fatal. That, said Father Howard Lincoln, spokesman of the Diocese of San Bernardino, "was a miracle."
"I don't think the worst happened," Lincoln said. "We thank God."
The driver of the truck, whom the Highway Patrol identified as Wayne Bellinis, 51, of Victorville was not injured. No charges had been filed Thursday evening, and the accident was still under investigation. CHP officials said they did not know if Bellinis was speeding but didn't believe he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The accident came hours before Highway Patrol Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick launched a crackdown on truck drivers who cause traffic accidents by driving irresponsibly.
Authorities said it appeared that Bellinis passed another car and was trying to move back into the right lane of the interstate when he underestimated the speed of the school bus--about 55 mph--and struck its rear.
Bellinis, said Highway Patrol Officer Kevin Haney, was heading east with a load of plants he had purchased in Chino to stock a nursery he owns in Tucson.
"I feel terrible--that's all I want to say," said Bellinis, who was reached at his home in Victorville. "I'm sorry. . . . I'm sorry."
Authorities said 45 people were on the bus: 35 children and 10 chaperons. Most were sleeping at the time of the accident, including Rosa Amelia Serrano, a teacher.
"When I opened my eyes I was in a bed in the hospital," said Serrano, who injured her head and her legs and spoke Thursday afternoon from a wheelchair. "At first I thought I was dreaming. Then I knew that it was reality."
Serrano's daughter, 7-year-old Rosa Isela Jauregui, and another relative were also on the bus. They were not injured, but it took four hours for Serrano to find that out.
"I didn't even feel my pain," she said of those four hours. "I was just worried about my people."
Several victims said the impact was so severe that their seats were ripped from the floor of the bus.
"The seats all started moving back and forth," said 13-year-old Adriana Crespo. "Everyone started screaming, and some kids got caught between the seats."
Those with injuries, from bruises to a broken leg, were taken to six area hospitals. Most had been released by Thursday afternoon, but three will require short hospital stays, officials said.
A boy and a girl, both 12, were at Loma Linda University Medical Center with broken legs, said hospital spokeswoman Kimberley Jeske Kuzma. The boy was in fair condition, and the girl's condition was good, she said.
An 11-year-old girl was in good condition at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton with unspecified injuries, a nursing supervisor said.
Some parents drove to pick up their children.
"They would rather go back with relatives," said Juan Jose Salgado, an official with the Mexican Consulate.
Those who were not injured waited most of the day Thursday in a shelter established by the Red Cross and the Diocese of San Bernardino at St. Francis X. Cabrini Catholic Church in Yucaipa.
Inside the church, the children and adults took naps then awoke to pancakes and sausage donated by a local restaurant. Chocolate cookies and pizza followed.
"Basically, they are acting like kids," Lincoln said.
Times staff writer Edward J. Boyer contributed to this story.