By Sharon Bernstein
ORLAND, California (Reuters) - Newly released recordings of 911 emergency calls revealed the helplessness of stunned residents in the California town of Orland who witnessed the aftermath of last week's fiery crash between a FedEx truck and a tour bus that killed 10 people.
The California Highway Patrol made the recordings public on Thursday as investigators returned to the scene of the accident, painstakingly driving a pristine white tour bus back and forth over the charred and bubbled surface of Interstate 5 in an effort to reconstruct the April 10 collision.
"Whatever is on the freeway is on fire," a man is heard telling emergency dispatchers on one of the recordings. "I just heard an explosion, but now I hear sirens. I'm running over to see what it is."
Five high school students and five adults, including the two drivers, died when the FedEx tractor trailer swerved across the highway median and slammed head-on into a motor coach filled with about 50 Los Angeles-area teenagers on their way to visit Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.
A blast unleashed by the impact was so loud that it was heard throughout nearby Orland, an agricultural community about 90 miles north of Sacramento.
Authorities said Thursday they still have not determined what caused the freight truck to careen through the tall, thick bushes growing along the center of the divided interstate and plow directly into the path of the motor coach.
In an audio replay of the experiences neighbors recounted from the moments after the crash, 911 operators can be heard telling the callers to stay away from the scene, and that emergency personnel were already arriving.
Carla Lopez, 17, and her mother live just a few feet away from the highway in a neighborhood of modest houses so close to the accident site that some residents fretted that one of the vehicles could have come flying off the road into their homes.
POWERLESS TO HELP
On Thursday, they clung to each other next to a makeshift memorial by the side of the interstate, watching Highway Patrol drivers maneuver a borrowed bus and FedEx tractor-trailer back and forth along the road.
On the clear, sunny afternoon last week when the collision occurred, the family heard a noise and ran outside, the teenager recalled.
"We couldn't help because the bus kept exploding," Lopez said quietly. "So we couldn't get near it."
The scene was all fire and pandemonium, said Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones.
"People don't realize how easily it could have been everyone on that bus who died," Jones said. "They were on fire. The girls' hair was on fire."
Had it not been for the relative youth and flexibility of the passengers, and for two students who managed to kick out the windows of the bus, everyone aboard the bus might have perished, Jones said.
"If this had been a bus full of older people headed to the casinos or something, they would have all died," he said. "It's just by the grace of God that we have these survivors."
At a news conference at the crash site on Thursday, officials said it could be months before they know what caused the crash.
Investigators trying to determine the presumed speed of the colliding vehicles slowed traffic on the interstate - the main West Coast highway from San Diego to Washington state - running a stand-in bus and truck past each other repeatedly, and taking measurements. Another test checked how far the bus would skid if the brakes were applied at highway speeds.
Nearby, three small memorials shone in the bright sunlight of the hot Sacramento Valley afternoon. One consisted of a single red flower, planted in a square of orange emergency tape out on the highway where workers had hauled away the last of the debris from the crash earlier Thursday morning.
The largest, pressed up against a chain-link fence erected to keep pedestrians off of the freeway, featured a cross made of yellow blossoms, vases of red, purple and vanilla-colored flowers and 35 religious candles.
Above these hung posters, some signed by relatives of the dead and others by residents of Orland. A palette of paints with brushes attached was taped on to the poster, in memory of a teenaged artist among the victims.
"To my dear cousin," someone had written on the poster, "It was early for you to go."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Ken Wills)