ORLAND, Calif. (AP) — A FedEx tractor-trailer crossed a grassy freeway median Thursday in Northern California and slammed into a bus carrying high school students on a visit to a college. At least nine were killed in the fiery crash, authorities said.
Massive flames could be seen devouring both vehicles just after the crash, and clouds of smoke billowed into the sky until firefighters had quenched the fire, leaving behind scorched black hulks of metal. Bodies were draped in blankets inside the burned-out bus.
CHP Officer Lacy Heitman said the driver of the tractor-trailer was among the dead. CHP dispatchers initially said the bus driver also died, but Heitman said investigators were working to identify the eight victims on the bus, which carried between 44 and 48 students, four chaperones and the driver.
The crash happened a little after 5:30 p.m. on Interstate 5 near Orland, a small city about 100 miles north of Sacramento.
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 just as he was trying to get some sleep in his seat in the back of the bus, he said he felt the vehicle shake from left to right.
"I just heard this loud boom," he said. "We knew we were in major trouble."
Many escaped through a window that someone had kicked open, running for their lives to the other side of the freeway before hearing an explosion and seeing the bus burst into flame.
The bus was one of two that the admissions office at Humboldt State University had chartered to bring prospective students from Southern California to tour the Arcata campus, Humboldt's Vice President of Administrative Affairs Joyce Lopes said.
The bus was owned by Silverado Stages, a tour bus company based in San Luis Obisbo. The company said in a statement on its website Thursday night that it was assisting authorities in gathering information.
"Our top priority is making sure that the injured are being cared for," Silverado Stages said.
Humboldt State's President Rollin Richmond issued a statement on the school's website. "Our hearts go out to those who have been affected, and we are here to support them, and their families, in any way possible," Richmond said.
Humboldt State spokesman Simon Chabel said the school was working to confirm where in Southern California the students on the wrecked bus are from.
"There is still a lot of information to be gathered, and we are working as hard as we can to gather that information and communicate it as best as we can to parents and other family members during this terrible tragedy," he said.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said an unknown number of students from Manual Arts Senior High School and Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools were on the trip. He did not know whether they were on the bus involved in the crash.
A high school senior from Alliance Renee & Meyer Luskin Academy High School in Los Angeles said she and a few of her classmates who were accepted to the university were invited to go on the tour.
Sabrina Garcia said the tour began with buses taking students in Southern California on a 13-hour ride to the campus for a three-day stay on campus. She said she decided to postpone the tour because she had a school project to complete.
"I was devastated when I heard about the crash, and relieved that I didn't attend," Garcia said. "I can't imagine how those kids feel. You think you're going somewhere safe with your school — and you end up in an accident."
A CHP dispatcher says the bus and truck were on opposite sides of the freeway when the truck crossed the median and slammed into the bus, causing an explosion and fire.
Investigators say the truck driver might have been trying to avoid a passenger car that was also involved in the crash, which shut down north- and south-bound traffic on the freeway.
A first responder who helped set up a triage at the scene said 36 or 37 people received injuries ranging from severe to minor burns, broken legs and noses and head lacerations.
"The victims were teenage kids. A lot of them were freaked out. They were shocked. They still couldn't grasp what happened," Jason Wyman with the Orland Volunteer Fire Department said.
Wyman said he was first focused on putting out the fire, and once it was under control he saw dozens of people walking wounded.
"The first victim that was taken out of the bus was severely burned," Wyman said.
A mother of identical twin girls from Norte Vista High School in Riverside told KNBC-TV her daughters traveled on two different buses, and that one of them was on the bus involved in the crash. The tearful mother spoke in Spanish and told the station she felt sad and desperate as she tried to learn about the other daughter's fate.
Nine people were taken to Enloe Medical Center in Chico, hospital spokeswoman Christina Chavira said. Two of those patients were listed in critical condition, two in fair condition, and six were in undetermined condition as of 10 p.m. Thursday, said Denise Atkinson, an Enloe nursing supervisor.
Another five were taken to Mercy Medical Center in Redding in fair condition.
One patient was admitted to the burn unit of University of California, Davis, Medical Center in unknown condition.
A nursing supervisor said three people were taken to Oroville Hospital in Oroville. She declined to describe their conditions, citing patient privacy laws.
Bonnie Kourvelas, a FedEx spokeswoman, said in a statement Thursday night: "Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in the tragic accident on I-5 in California. We are cooperating fully with authorities as they investigate."
Leff reported from San Francisco. Associated Press Photographer Rick Pedroncelli in Orland, Associated Press Writers Channing Joseph in San Francisco and Daisy Nguyen and Tami Abdollah in Los Angeles contributed to this story.