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Sunday, December 4, 2016

By Christine Mai-Duc, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The drivers of a FedEx freight truck and charter bus that collided head-on last week in Northern California, killing 10, had clean driving records, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The bus company, Silverado Stages, identified the driver late Monday as Talalelei Lealao-Taiao. Family members identified Tim Evans, a 32-year-old husband and father of two young girls, as the FedEx driver. Both were among the 10 killed when the FedEx truck barreled across a grassy median on Interstate 5 north of Sacramento and hit the bus carrying 48 people, including 44 Southern California high school students en route to Humboldt State University.

Also among those killed in the fiery crash in Orland were three adult chaperons and five high school students.

DMV records did show that Lealao-Taiao’s license had been suspended for about a month in 2004, but no explanation was available because records are purged every 10 years, said Jan Mendoza, a department spokeswoman. In general, the reasons can range from an unpaid parking ticket to driving under the influence, officials said.

It was also not immediately clear what type of license it was.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have been trying to figure out what caused the crash, using video footage and witness accounts to piece together the sequence of events. They plan to examine two new pieces of video evidence: One is cellphone video shot by the driver of a Nissan Altima hit by the truck just before it slammed into the bus. The other is footage from a dashboard camera provided by the California Highway Patrol.

More clues may also be available from a black box-type recorder on the bus that collects vehicle data. The FedEx truck also was equipped with a recorder, but it was destroyed in the fire.

The NTSB was in the process of learning the exact nature of the contents being hauled by Evans at the time of the crash. Officials have said the two semi-trailers — one partly loaded, the other empty — were being returned to Sacramento when the collision occurred.

Debbie Otto, the stepmother of Evans’ wife, Candice, described her son-in-law as a gentle, devoted family man who always wore a smile.

“He was never in a bad mood, never angry,” Otto said. “He’s like the Boy Scout that would always stop and help the little old lady. But he was like that with everyone.”

At family gatherings, nieces, nephews and cousins “gravitated” toward his laughter and good nature, she said.

Evans was also a hands-on father, coaching softball and soccer teams and making his signature breakfast burritos on the weekends, Otto added.

“We are all just wondering if we can all just wake up already. It can’t be real,” she said.

Evans and his wife were high school sweethearts. In a Facebook post, Candice Evans said her husband was “my best friend, my teammate, my rock, my partner in crime.”

“He was the guy who ‘just stopped by to say hi’ and had a way of making everyone feel happy,” she wrote.

Friends and family were also mourning the loss of the bus driver, Lealao-Taiao.

Silverado Stages posted a statement on its website Monday, saying the company “mourns the loss of their friend, driver and valued employee, Talalelei Lealao-Taiao, who was among those who died in the accident.”

Lealao-Taiao, 53, joined the company in late March after her former employer closed its Sacramento bus yard.

“She had a very clean, spotless safety record when she was with us and was very well-liked by everybody she worked with,” said John Busskohl, chief executive of Ryan’s Express Transportation, where Lealao-Taiao had worked for about 2 1/2 years before moving to Silverado Stages.

News of her death hit his colleagues hard as well, Busskohl said.

“It was tough on some folks here for sure,” he said.

Her daughter, Jordayna Lealao, thanked friends and family for their outpouring of remembrances in one Facebook post.

“This is a time that we should celebrate the beautiful life my mother lived,” the post read. “I know she wouldn’t wont (sic) us to be sad right now.”

The Glenn County coroner said Monday that none of the 10 victims had been officially identified because of the extent of damage to the bodies. Authorities are relying on dental records and DNA analysis. Some families, however, have confirmed some of the names of the dead.

Photo: Greg953 via Wikimedia Commons