Ten people, five of them teenage students en route to a college recruitment event, died when the truck swerved across the median of Interstate 5 and slammed head-on into the motor coach full of students from the Los Angeles area on Thursday.
It remained unclear whether the FedEx driver was somehow distracted or lost consciousness, or whether a mechanical failure might be to blame.
According to early accounts of the accident, the truck side-swiped a car after crossing the center divider but before hitting the bus.
Two witnesses, Bonnie and Joe Duran, who were in the clipped car, told NBC Los Angeles that the truck was on fire before it hit the bus. “It was in flames as it came through the median,” Bonnie Duran said, “It was already in flames. It wasn’t coming from the front engine, it was more from behind the cab.”
NTSB investigator Mark Rosekind told TODAY’s Erica Hill that he was aware of the Durans’ account.
He said his team was “still in the early phases of collecting our factual information,” including other witness statements, and that devices fitted to the tour bus might help piece together what happened in the tragic crash.
“There’s an electronic module …on the bus that could tell us information about the speed, any hard braking that might have happened,” he said. However, he added that any similar such technology on the truck was “probably destroyed” in the intense fire.
A powerful explosion unleashed by the impact was so loud it was heard throughout the nearby community of Orland, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, said Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones. More than 30 others were injured in the wreck.
The two drivers were killed, as well as five high school students and a college recruiter on their way north to visit Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, as part of a program to help disadvantaged college hopefuls.
Among the dead was a recently-engaged couple serving as chaperones, and a 17-year-old student, Marisa Serrato from Riverside, Calif. whose twin sister Marisol was travelling on the same trip but on a different bus.
The fire was so intense that it could be days or weeks before some of the bodies can be identified, and investigators will have to rely on dental records or in some cases DNA testing.