After bus crash, Humboldt State community embraces survivors

After bus crash, Humboldt State community embraces survivors
High school students board a bus Saturday morning to return to Los Angeles after their tour of Humboldt State University. (Paige St. John / Los Angeles Times)

ARCATA, Calif. — For 36 hours, the faculty and students at Humboldt State University juggled normalcy and disaster as best as they could, trying to help a busload of shell-shocked youngsters from Los Angeles get through what should have been a typical college visit.

The youths were the other half of a charter group that had left Southern California on Thursday in two motor coaches — the second of which collided with a FedEx truck and burst into flames, leaving 10 dead and dozens injured. A third motor coach carried students from Fresno and Sacramento.


"We're trying to keep things normal," said Dan Saveliff, a university director, as he corralled a reporter who arrived Saturday to attempt to interview students before they returned home early. The usual Saturday afternoon barbecue on the beach had been called off so students could get home sooner.

They were part of a group of minority and largely first-generation high school students Humboldt has recruited to enroll in California's most out-of-the-way public university. About 45% of those who accept the bus ride wind up returning as students, a primary source of ethnic and social diversity for Humboldt and also Arcata, the coastal village that forms the other half of the local population.

"For them to come to a small place like Arcata, it's drastic," said Adrienne Colegrove-Raymond, outreach director for Humboldt. "If you are of color, in Arcata, that's an adjustment."

Joyce Lopes, vice president of administrative affairs, could think of nothing quite on the scale and scope of last week's tragedy in terms of the effect it has had on the roughly 8,000 students and faculty.

"It is ... horrific," she said. "Yes, I am sure they are all touched by this."

Humboldt administrators were leaving a university center board meeting Thursday evening when they learned of the crash and uncertain fate of those aboard the motor coach.

The vice president of public affairs said, "We have to get over there.... We have to be with these students," so he and Humboldt President Rollin Richmond got into a car and left, Lopes said.

Richmond visited half a dozen far-flung hospitals where the injured had been taken, "to stop at every stop and touch every one of the students," Lopes said. She checked off their names as he did.

Those remaining at the campus set up a hotline for parents to call, with translators for those who did not speak English. They were still answering phones Saturday.

Two other buses from Fresno and Los Angeles were already threading their way through the Western Cascades, a national forest with 20-mph switchbacks and steep grades and largely no cellphone service.

University officials decided it was best to keep the students coming to Humboldt. They braced for how to deliver news of the tragedy to their L.A. visitors and the student volunteers with whom they would be spending the next two days.

There was no way to prepare, Colegrove-Raymond said. "We didn't have time."

When the last bus arrived after 9 p.m., staff members assembled the visitors and their student hosts in a commons room. Counselors came. And then the news.

The reaction "ran the gamut," Lopes said. "Some go very quiet. Some go to their social media for support. Some need to talk. Some need to cry."


Savannah Towles, 19, who is from Pomona and studying social work at Humboldt, found herself in her dorm that night with a shell-shocked girl from Los Angeles who had a friend aboard the destroyed bus. Towles knew she needed to take action.

"I did ruckus and laughter," she said.

She said funny things, did funny things. She took her charge out into the hall where other dorm residents had gathered. By midnight, they were cracking up and dancing in the dorm hall to Weezer blasting from Towles' computer.

"It was 'Say It Ain't So,'" Towles said.

Some students couldn't sleep, said Duanee Breaux, a 19-year-old kinesiology major from San Francisco, who hosted three high school students from the Bay Area in her apartment. The accelerated, morning-to-night schedule of tours and sessions the university had them going through Friday "were a good distraction," she said.

By 9 a.m. Saturday, the school was shipping its visitors home with packaged meals provided by a local business for the seven-hour ride.

The tour "started off very, very wrong. It hit everybody hard," Breaux said, joining Towles to watch their charges board two silver coaches that would take them home.

"But what I saw happen, you could see the love for our little brothers and sisters."