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Witnesses saw fire on truck before deadly bus accident

Emergency workers examined wreckage from the crash Thursday in Orland, Calif., in which a tractor-trailer truck and a tour bus collided.

Greg Barnette/Associated Press

Emergency workers examined wreckage from the crash Thursday in Orland, Calif., in which a tractor-trailer truck and a tour bus collided.

ORLAND, Calif. — A couple said a FedEx tractor-trailer was already on fire when it tore across a median, sideswiped their car, and slammed into a bus carrying high school students, adding a new twist to the investigation of a crash that killed 10 people.

Initial reports by police indicated the truck swerved to avoid a sedan that was traveling in the same direction in this town about 100 miles north of Sacramento, then went across the median. There was no mention of the truck being on fire.

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But Joe and Bonnie Duran, the Seattle-area couple who were in the car, said, like the bus, they were northbound on Interstate 5 on Thursday afternoon. Bonnie Duran, who was driving, told KNBC-TV in Los Angeles that flames were coming from the lower rear of the truck cab.

‘‘I just looked to the left, and there it was coming through right at me at an angle. I can tell I wasn’t going to outrun him, so I just kind of turned to the right and he hit me,’’ she said. ‘‘It was in flames as it came through the median. . . . It wasn’t like the whole thing was engulfed. It was coming up wrapping around him.’’

The couple was not seriously injured. KNBC-TV reported that the Durans would be formally interviewed Saturday by the California Highway Patrol before flying home.

Officer Lacey Heitman, a spokeswoman for California Highway Patrol, said she could not confirm if the truck was on fire before the collision until all evidence was gathered.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency is investigating the condition of the truck before the collision. FedEx spokeswoman Bonnie Harrison wouldn’t comment on the reports the truck was on fire.

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When the tractor-trailer collided with the charter bus carrying high school students to a college campus tour, the vehicles exploded into towering flames. Bodies recovered from the bus were burned beyond recognition.

Five students from the Los Angeles area, three chaperones, and the truck and bus drivers died. Dozens were injured, and several remained hospitalized Saturday, including at least one in critical condition.

As part of what’s expected to be a lengthy and broad investigation, Federal transportation authorities are examining whether fire safety measures they previously recommended for motor coaches could have allowed more of the 48 bus occupants to escape unharmed.

The NTSB’s Mark Rosekind said his agency will not only look into the cause of the crash, but what regulators can do to stop any similar ones from happening in the future. Fire safety is one of six areas the NTSB plans to investigate, partly because it has been longstanding concern of the agency.

After a 2005 bus fire killed 23 nursing home residents escaping Hurricane Rita in Texas, the NTSB called for safety standards that could make buses less vulnerable to fire, including improved protection of fuel tanks. More recently, the NTSB says buses must have sophisticated suppression systems to control fires, much as high-rise buildings have sprinkler systems.

‘‘Fire suppression holds the greatest potential for saving lives, reducing costs and minimizing damage,’’ according to a recent NTSB list of its safety priorities for all modes of transportation. Existing fire standards dating to the 1970s apply to small fire sources such as lit cigarettes, but they do not apply to large fires that can start outside the bus.

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