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Mother of student killed in fiery bus crash drives to crash scene

ORLAND, Calif. -- Adrian Castro’s mother heard about the fiery bus crash and, when she couldn’t get answers about the fate of her son, got in her car and drove all night.

At 6:30 a.m. Friday, she walked into a Red Cross shelter near the crash site and got the news she had been dreading.

“They were 90% sure my son was dead,” said Veronica Soriano, crying over the phone. “They just had to get the dental records to confirm.”

Officials have said that 10 people were killed in the fiery Interstate 5 crash: Five students, three chaperons and the drivers of the bus and FedEx truck. Coroner's officials have formally identified only one victim -- 26-year-old admissions counselor Arthur Arzola -- and said bodies were so badly burned that identifying them will be difficult. But relatives have said they presume the worst for missing loved ones who were known to be on the bus.

Adrian Castro's classmates and their parents struggled to absorb the news on campus, where students had begun chalking memories of the teen on sidewalks. Castro, 19, played cornerback on the El Monte High team and someday hoped to be an athletic trainer.

“They’re distraught; they’re all falling apart,” said Monica Lopez, whose two sons played with Castro. “But they’re all sticking together.”

Angel Gonzalez, another classmate, said Adrian had wavered on taking the trip to Humboldt State because of a party he wanted to attend.

“He was really excited about Humboldt,” Angel said. “He was thrilled. He wanted to go see how it is. He’s just adventurous, wanted to have a good time.”

Another victim, Arzola, the admissions counselor, was described by family members as having a passion for working with underprivileged students and helping guide them toward college. Though he worked for Humboldt State, he continued to live in Southern California and recruit students from the region. The university confirmed his death.

"Words cannot express our sadness," Humboldt State officials said in a statement.

Arzola's stepmother said he was a straight-A student in high school and served as a peer counselor at academic camps geared toward helping underprivileged young people.

“He wanted to make it an even playing field. He wanted them to have the same opportunities,” Stephanie Arzola said. “He always just wanted to just help students be passionate about school and have them move on to higher education, make something of themselves, and have a career.”

Michael Myvett, a 29-year-old Humboldt State University graduate, was identified as one of the other chaperons missing and presumed killed. 

“Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of this tragic accident,” said Trinice Sampson, a family spokeswoman. “Michael is unaccounted for and presumed dead.”

Myvett was traveling with his fiancee, who was identified by family members as Mattison Haywood. The two were engaged in Paris during the holidays, relatives said.

Haywood was also still missing, Myvett's family said.

The crash has sent shockwaves across the state, resonating particularly in Southern California, where more than two dozen schools said they had students on the trip. Nearly 24 hours after the crash, many were still trying to account for their students. 

The bus was one of three heading to Humboldt State for its Preview Plus program, which gives low-income and first-generation college students a free chance to visit the university. About 100 students typically attend the two-day session from the L.A. area, the university said.

About 5:40 p.m. Thursday, officials said they received the first call about the crash. By the time first responders arrived, authorities said, the bus was engulfed in flames.

Witnesses described a horrific scene as the teenagers kicked out windows to get out of the bus. Dozens were injured, including one man who witnesses said was on fire. The sound of the crash could be heard up to a quarter of a mile away, authorities said.

California Highway Patrol Lt. Scott Fredrick said it remained unclear whether the FedEx driver – who officials said was among those killed – had fallen asleep, whether his semi had some type of mechanical failure or whether there had been a collision with another vehicle in the moments before the bus was struck.

Fredrick said CHP investigators were being assisted by the National Transportation Safety Board, which sent a team that arrived at the remote Northern California scene Friday morning. Investigators would use  “sophisticated surveying and mapping equipment,” along with 3-D diagramming, to reconstruct the events leading up to the crash, he said.

Fredrick said investigators would also consider roadway and weather conditions. But he and others cautioned that it could take up to six months for the CHP to complete its report.

“The investigation itself … is a long, tedious process,” said Ruben Leal of the CHP. “We may not have some answers for months.”

Carpenter said 31 people were taken to seven hospitals with injuries ranging from minor to critical. Nine people were pronounced dead at the scene, and another died later of severe burns.

A Nissan Altima was also involved in the crash, authorities said, but it remained unclear how. The two occupants suffered what were described as minor to moderate injuries and were excepted to recover.

Parents rushed to Northern California hospitals and a Red Cross shelter where some of the surviving teenagers spent Thursday night. 

The family of one 17-year-old Riverside student said they had not heard from their daughter since the crash. Marisa Serrato was riding on one of the three buses headed to Humboldt State University to tour the campus, her family said. Her twin sister, Marisol, was riding on a separate bus and was uninjured.

On Friday, the girls' family headed north in hopes of learning what happened to the high school senior.

“We’ve called the hospitals,” said Serrato’s mother, who is also named Marisa. “They haven’t been able to tell us anything about my daughter.”

Marisa and Marisol Serrato both hoped to attend Humboldt State in the fall and were visiting the campus for the first time. After the crash, Marisol Serrato said she was uninjured but “devastated” by the lack of news about her sister.

The list of missing students also included two seniors, a boy and a girl, from Animo Inglewood, a charter school operated by Green Dot Public Schools. Their parents have traveled to the crash area to find out what they could, said Green Dot Chief Executive Marco Petruzzi.

A girl at another Green Dot campus, Animo Jackie Robinson, was taken to a hospital with injuries that are not believed to be life-threatening.

“It’s a brutal day for us,” Petruzzi said. “Probably the most tragic day we’ve had. Right now our counselors are trying to help students get through the day.”

School officials said it has been difficult to determine which of their students, if any, were on the bus. Some schools said their students had been invited on the trip but later declined to go.

Ten students from Alliance Luskin College-Ready Academy were accepted to Humboldt State and had been invited on the tour, but none decided to go on the trip, said Chalio Medrano, principal of the South Los Angeles charter.

"We've been in contact with families since last night clarifying and also in communication with college counselors and verified that all of our students were at school yesterday," Medrano said.

One of the students accepted, Monica Rivera, said she received several emails from Humboldt State about attending the spring preview day, but the 17-year-old senior said she was too busy.

"I knew I wouldn't have time," Rivera said. "I was shocked thinking I could have been on that bus."

Students on the two buses that left from downtown L.A.'s Union Station 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.

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy provided an updated list of 14 L.A. Unified campuses with students on the bus involved in the fatal crash. Deasy said he did not know if students from these schools were among the five killed.

“We’re very worried about the condition of a number of students,” he said in an interview, declining to elaborate further.

Officials from L.A. Unified, Humboldt State and the California State University system were among those who traveled to the area Friday, meeting with several of the students and their families at hospitals.

“The great irony here, the great sadness is these are the students California needs to be successful going forward,” Cal State Chancellor Timothy White said. Students “had their dream of going to Humboldt State taken away away by this tragic accident,” he said.

“The soul of the CSU has been cut deeply,” he said.


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