ORLAND, Calif. -- A witness to Thursday’s deadly tour bus crash said the driver of the FedEx truck appeared to lose control while changing lanes before barreling across the center median of Interstate 5 and colliding head-on with a tour bus filled with high school students.
Ryan Householder told The Times on Saturday that he was mowing his lawn, which faces the southbound lanes of the highway, when he heard screeching tires Thursday. He looked up and watched the crash occur. The drivers of both vehicles were killed as were eight people on board the tour bus.
“I never thought I’d see that in real life,” he said. “That’s movies, Hollywood.”
Householder, 31, said the FedEx truck, hauling two trailers, was in the slower of two southbound lanes behind a red van, he said. The truck tried to merge into the faster lane, he said, but there were two cars there.
At that point, the truck driver seemed to lose control of his vehicle, Householder said. The truck shot across the grassy median, shearing the tops off bushes that separate the northbound and southbound lanes.
The truck began straightening out, Householder said, but by that time it was already on the northbound lane and it collided with the bus carrying high school students on their way to Humboldt State University.
“When they collided, it was boom!” he said. Both vehicles erupted into fire.
The truck, Householder said, was not on fire before the crash. Two other witnesses have said the truck appears to be on fire before it hit the bus.
Householder said he saw students popping out emergency exit windows and escaping.
“There were so many people coming out of windows, there weren’t enough windows,” he said. “All I saw was carnage. Burn marks, blood everywhere. Even the ones who had blood all over their clothes didn’t know they were injured.”
Householder said he was shocked and ran inside to call 911. Then he ran toward the crash.
But Householder’s account appeared to conflict with that given by two other witnesses who were involved in the crash who said the FedEx truck was on fire before it hit the tour bus.
Bonnie and Joe Duran told TV reporters in Northern California late Friday that their Nissan Altima was sideswiped by the truck before it collided head-on with the bus. They said flames were visible from the big rig as it crossed the median and hit their car.
“It was on fire already,” Bonnie Duran said.
Investigators have not publicly responded to the Durans’ account.
Cameron Birk, the couple’s son-in-law, told The Times Saturday that he has talked to Joe Duran several times since the accident. He said Duran told him the couple were driving northbound on the interstate in the left lane, with Bonnie at the wheel, when they first saw the FedEx truck. Bonnie jerked the wheel to the right to avoid a head-on collision.
“The truck was already on fire when it had crossed the median,” Birk recalled Joe Duran telling him. “They were the first car it hit, so they just jerked the wheel hard and got side-wiped.” They spun out and got thrown into a ditch, Birk said.
“Joe described it like a 3D movie, a truck coming out of the screen right at you, once the truck exploded through those bushes, it’s right there at you,” he said.
The truck hit just behind the Durans’ drivers’ side, inches behind where Bonnie sat at the wheel, Birk said, and the back of the car was crushed. The collision tore off the car’s back axle and rear tire, Birk said.
The airbags in the Durans’ vehicle deployed, causing some minor bruising in Bonnie Duran’s chest, Birk said. She was hospitalized overnight Thursday and released Friday afternoon.
“I know they’re just in a whirlwind. They’re emotionally stricken from the accident and all the press and just trying to get home,” Birk said.
The Durans were flying home to Washington on Saturday afternoon and could not immediately be reached for comment.
A group of 48 students, mostly from Southern California schools, and their chaperons were aboard the tour bus headed to Humboldt State University for an orientation program designed for underprivileged students.
Five students and five adults, including both drivers, were killed and more than 30 people were injured.
Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones said some of the victims were so badly burned that it would take medical and dental records to positively identified them.
National Transportation Safety Board officials, who arrived at the crash site Friday morning, will look into the condition of the vehicles involved, the safety of the highway, the records of both carriers, the truck driver’s health and whether he was fatigued due to his work schedule or other factors.