By Fenit Nirappil
and Joan Lowy
ORLAND, CALIF.: A couple said a FedEx tractor-trailer was already on fire when it careened across a median, sideswiped their car and slammed into a bus carrying high school students, adding a new twist to the investigation of a crash that killed 10 people.
Initial reports by police indicated the truck swerved to avoid a sedan that was traveling in the same direction in the town about 100 miles north of Sacramento, then went across the median. There was no mention of the truck being on fire.
But Joe and Bonnie Duran, the Seattle-area couple who were in the car, said, like the bus, they were northbound on Interstate 5 on Thursday afternoon. Bonnie Duran, who was driving, told KNBC-TV in Los Angeles that flames were coming from the lower rear of the truck cab.
“I just looked to the left, and there it was coming through right at me at an angle. I can tell I wasn’t going to outrun him, so I just kind of turned to the right and he hit me,” she said. “It was in flames as it came through the median. ... It wasn’t like the whole thing was engulfed. It was coming up wrapping around him.”
The couple was not seriously injured. KNBC-TV reported that the Durans would be formally interviewed Saturday by the California Highway Patrol before flying home.
Officer Lacey Heitman, a spokeswoman for California Highway Patrol, said she could not confirm if the truck was on fire before the collision until all evidence was gathered. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency is investigating the condition of the truck before the collision, including if it was on fire. FedEx spokeswoman Bonnie Harrison wouldn’t comment on the reports the truck was on fire.
When the tractor-trailer collided with the charter bus carrying high school students to a college campus tour in California’s redwood county, the vehicles exploded into towering flames and billowing black smoke. Bodies recovered from the bus were charred beyond recognition.
Five students from the Los Angeles area, three chaperones and the truck and bus drivers died in the crash.
Dozens were injured, and several remained hospitalized Saturday, including at least one in critical condition.
As part of what’s expected to be a lengthy and broad investigation, federal transportation authorities are examining whether fire safety measures they previously recommended for motor coaches could have allowed more of the 48 bus occupants to escape unharmed.
The 44 Southern California high school students on the bus in Thursday’s crash, many hoping to become the first in their families to attend college, were on a free trip arranged by Humboldt State University.
The fatalities included a recently engaged couple from Los Angeles and a newlywed from Orange County chaperoning the trip. Among the students was an identical twin from Riverside whose sister was on another bus that arrived safely at Humboldt.
Silverado Stages, the San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based company that owns the charter bus involved in the crash, has a strong safety record, and it has said it is fully cooperating with the investigation.
It is unclear what sort of fire-safety equipment the bus in Thursday’s crash had, and the company couldn’t be reached for comment Saturday.