For many of the students on the chartered bus that collided with a FedEx freight truck Thursday, the rare all-expenses-paid trip was the first time anyone in their family had been courted by a college.
The students were part of a 20-year-old program called Preview Plus that seeks to enroll low-income students and those who are the first in their families to attend college. Many of them are Latino and African American, although the state ban on affirmative action forbids public universities from using race or ethnicity to specifically target students for enrollment.
En route to Humboldt State University, their trip was violently interrupted shortly after 5:30 p.m. when the FedEx truck crossed a grassy median on Interstate 5 and slammed into the bus near Orland, north of Sacramento.
The vehicles burst into flames, sending panicked passengers scrambling to get off the bus, some of them smashing out windows in order to crawl out.
Five students died in the accident, along with three chaperons and the drivers of the bus and the truck.
Students were to use their experience at Humboldt State to weigh their choices and financial aid offers.
The heavily wooded Northern California campus rolls out its green welcome mat for a weekend in the spring to more than 100 high school seniors, mainly from the Los Angeles, Fresno and San Francisco Bay areas.
The students who attend the event have been accepted by Humboldt -- and presumably other schools -- and are trying to weigh their choices and financial aid offers, officials said. They're housed in campus dorms, given tours of the school and its clubs, meet with professors and older students, visit the bookstore and radio station and are treated to meals and music. The students can also visit the farmers’ market in downtown Arcata and are even given the chance to join in a scavenger hunt there.
All expenses, including transportation, are paid by the university.
Judy Ivie Burton, president of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools charter organization, which had two students who were injured in the crash, said the trip was one of many college tours that students are offered as they try to decide which campus to attend.
Such trips are very important for low-income students who may be the first in their families to attend college.
“For almost all, this is the first time away from home and away from our community," Burton said.
Investigators combing through the wreckage said they do not yet know what caused the driver of a FedEx truck to veer across a freeway median and hit the students' bus head-on.
The first call about the crash came in about 5:40 p.m. Thursday, California Highway Patrol Cmdr. Bruce Carpenter said. The bus was already fully engulfed in flames by the time first responders arrived, he said.
Carpenter said 31 people were transported to seven hospitals with minor to critical injuries. Nine people were pronounced dead at the scene and another died later of severe burns.
By midday Friday, parents, friends and school officials were still trying to confirm the identities of the five students who were still unaccounted for.
Los Angeles Unified Supt. John Deasy vowed that every survivor would be contacted by L.A. Unified staff by the end of the day. He said efforts to establish contact with some families were still underway.
“We will put all our energy into supporting these families, now and going forward,” Deasy said.