By Matt Stevens, Paige St. John and Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times
ORLAND, Calif. — The death toll in a head-on collision between a FedEx truck and a bus full of Los Angeles-area high school students rose to 10 early Friday, officials said.
The victims included five students, three adult chaperons, the driver of the truck and the driver of the bus, a California Highway Patrol dispatcher told the Los Angeles Times.
Shortly after 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the FedEx truck crossed the grassy median that separates Interstate 5 here and slammed into the bus packed with students en route to visit Humboldt State University, about 200 miles north of the crash site.
The impact, which witnesses said sounded like a series of explosions, caused both vehicles to burst into flames. The fireball and towering black smoke were captured by the cellphone cameras of others in nearby cars.
Dorsey Griffith, a spokeswoman for UC Davis Medical Center, said one patient who was admitted to the burn unit died late Thursday night. The CHP dispatcher confirmed the 10th fatality occurred at the medical center.
Several other patients remained in critical condition at area hospitals. Griffith said another patient admitted into the medical center was in critical condition as of about 3 a.m.
Enloe Medical Center in Chico said it had received a total of 11 patients from the scene and that, as of 2 a.m. Friday, two of the patients were in critical condition. Four were in fair condition, and five had been discharged, the medical center said in a statement, adding that all the admitted patients were passengers on the bus.
Hours after the deadly head-on collision, skid marks from the charter bus stretched nearly 100 yards down the pavement. The hulk of the charred vehicle sat nose down in a ditch, pressed against a mangled small white car.
Marc Smutny, 27, said he was nearby when he heard “probably three explosions” and ran to the scene. “It was insane. The bus was engulfed in flames, smoke in and out of the front,” he said. “The bus looked like it took most of the hit. … It was horrible.”
The identities of the dead were not immediately known. Company officials confirmed in statements that the bus was operated by Silverado Stages and the truck by FedEx.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials were still scrambling to piece together which students were caught up in the accident.
Although officials said they were aware of students from Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown and Manual Arts High School in South L.A. participating in the trip, which was not organized by L.A. Unified, it was unclear whether they were on the bus.
Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino wrote on Facebook and tweeted that two Banning High School students were on the bus but had survived.
“It’s almost impossible to confirm who was on that bus because there were three buses,” said a senior school district official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak.
LAUSD Assistant Supt. Earl Perkins confirmed Thursday night that students from other districts were also on the trip, but said he did not want to release the names of the other school systems, pending confirmation with them.
“We’re still identifying all who were involved, who was on the buses,” Perkins said.
He added that he and other officials intended to stay up all night gathering information and doing what was possible to inform and assist families. “These are our babies,” he said.
In the wake of the crash, uninjured students were brought to the Veterans Mall Hall in Orland, where the Red Cross set up a shelter.
Volunteers shuttled in and out, serving up water, chips and other food to the students. One grabbed candy to bring inside.
“I’m just trying to think of what they would want if they were home,” the volunteer said.
By about 11:30 p.m., some students had already been picked up by family members, said Bob Coombs, a Red Cross volunteer. The remaining students claimed cots inside the hall where they could spend the night.
Steven Clavijo, 18, a student at West Ranch High School in Santa Clarita, told the Associated Press that he was on the bus during the crash. For hours during the long drive north, the students — from several different schools in the Los Angeles area — watched movies and listened to hip-hop on the radio, Clavijo said.
But he said just as he was trying to get some sleep in his seat in the back of the bus, he felt the vehicle shake from left to right.
“I just heard this loud boom,” he said. “We knew we were in major trouble.”
CHP investigators were just beginning their investigation late Thursday, and officials said it would be picked up by a team from the National Transportation Safety Board on Friday morning. Both northbound and southbound lanes of the 5 Freeway in the area were expected to be closed until around 7 a.m. Friday.
Early Friday, a FedEx spokeswoman confirmed that a company “freight truck” was involved in the collision. In a statement, FedEx said, “We are cooperating fully with the authorities as they investigate.”
In a statement, Silverado Stages officials said they were “helping the authorities in gathering information regarding the tragic accident that occurred on Thursday evening. Our top priority is making sure that the injured are being cared for. Our thoughts and prayers are with the injured, their families and everyone affected by this accident.”
Humboldt State officials said the charter bus was bringing a group of prospective students to the campus’ April 12 spring preview day.
University officials made use of the school’s website to report what they knew. An emergency information line for the Humboldt State University Police was made available to family members seeking their loved ones, at (707) 826-6327.
Gov. Jerry Brown and his wife Anne expressed “heartfelt and deep sympathies to the families, friends and loved ones of those who died in the tragic accident near Orland this evening.”
“As we mourn the loss of those who died,” Brown said in a statement, “we join all Californians in expressing our gratitude for the tireless work of the Red Cross and emergency personnel who responded bravely to this terrible tragedy.”
Photo: Greg953 via Wikimedia Commons