California authorities said Friday that it could take months to determine what caused the driver of a FedEx tractor-trailer to cross a grassy center divider and slam into a chartered bus full of high school students on a trip to a Northern California university.
The accident, which killed 10 people, including five students, and injured dozens, occurred Thursday evening on Interstate 5 in Orland, a town about 100 miles north of Sacramento. Both the FedEx truck and bus burst into flames, shutting down traffic on both sides of the highway and sending panicked children fleeing out bus windows.
The California Highway Patrol said the drivers of the bus and the truck were among the dead, but officials have released the name of only one victim, Arthur Arzola, 26, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., one of three chaperones who died.
At least one bus passenger remained in critical condition Friday. A total of 31 people were taken to seven hospitals after the crash and were being treated for a range of injuries, including burns, officials said.
“This was a horrific collision,” said Larry Jones, the sheriff and coroner of Glenn County. “The impact was heard throughout the community,” as far as a quarter mile away. A fire “with very high temperatures” broke out almost immediately after the impact, he said.
The last body was removed from the scene about 1:40 a.m. Friday, Jones said, but it may take some time to identify the victims because of the extent of the injuries.
Television video and photographs of the accident posted on social media showed both vehicles engulfed in fire and children walking or limping along the highway, many bleeding from cuts to their faces. Survivors and rescue workers described one adult victim running from the crash in flames.
The students involved in the accident were taking part in Humboldt State University’s Preview Plus, an annual program in which the university provides transportation and lodging to enable hundreds of disadvantaged students who have been admitted to visit the campus for tours, meetings with university staff and students and opportunities to sit in on classes. The bus was one of three chartered by Humboldt State to bring high school students to the campus Thursday.
A university spokesman, Jarad Petroske, said the program, which dated to the 1990s, was aimed at students from the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, particularly those from low-income homes who would be in the first generation of their families to go to college. Humboldt is in Arcata, near Eureka, south of the Oregon border.
Aboard the buses that arrived as planned Thursday, many of the students and chaperones had already learned of the tragedy on their phones. That night, the university president, Rollin C. Richmond, met with them, explained what he knew about what had happened, offered support services and then left to visit the injured passengers in local hospitals.
“We hope the future means that we can continue to do this,” Richmond said. “This is a very sad day for us.”
The 47 passengers on the bus were high school students and their chaperones from school districts from Southern California, including Los Angeles, Long Beach and Riverside.
Michelle King, senior deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Friday that 19 students from 16 schools in the district had been on the bus. A school spokesman said the students had been accepted at Humboldt State, but it was not clear whether they had decided to attend.
Lt. Scott Fredrick from the accident investigation team of the California Highway Patrol said the investigation would take months to complete. In particular, Fredrick said, investigators needed to determine what caused the driver of the FedEx truck to veer out of control. Before striking the northbound bus, the FedEx truck, which had been traveling south on Interstate 5, sideswiped another vehicle, but the Highway Patrol said it was not immediately clear what role that may have played.
Among the factors investigators will examine, Fredrick said, is whether the driver fell asleep or whether the truck had mechanical problems. California investigators, he said, will work with a team from the National Transportation Safety Board.
By the time the California Highway Patrol arrived, both vehicles were aflame, said Bruce Carpenter, the Highway Patrol commander for the area.
The worst of the flames had broken out near the front of the bus, and students were able to escape through a rear emergency door or by kicking out bus windows, some of the children said on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Most of those who died had been sitting near the front of the bus, the police said.
“This is a humongous tragedy of a magnitude that’s not typical for this county,” Carpenter said.
Bonnie Kourvelas, a FedEx spokeswoman, declined to answer questions Friday, but the company released a statement saying that it was “deeply saddened by the tragic highway accident” and that it was cooperating with the investigation.
Spring programs for admitted students, like the one at Humboldt, have become increasingly common and elaborate over the last generation, particularly among private colleges. Schools use the visits as a marketing tool, especially with students who are weighing multiple offers.
But for a university like Humboldt, the event also serves another purpose: giving urban, largely minority teenagers a glimpse of life in a small, remote, mostly white town, in a region known for towering redwoods, ardent environmentalism and clandestine marijuana farming.
“We hear a lot about the culture shock coming up here,” Petroske said.
“The weekend will proceed as planned,” Petroske said. “It’ll be taking on a more somber tone, of course. Everybody on campus is devastated.”
Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University system, said the Preview Plus program would continue despite the accident. While students had a “dream taken away by this very tragic accident,” White said at a news conference, the goal of helping the “very students California needs to be successful” will continue.