By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - A witness reported that a FedEx tractor-trailer that crashed into a bus in northern California on Thursday killing 10 people was on fire before impact, the National Transportation Safety Board said on Saturday.
The driver of a car that had passed the bus just before the crash said flames were coming from beneath the cab of the truck, board member Mark Rosekind told a Saturday evening news conference. The truck clipped the car and then hit the bus, Rosekind said.
Among those killed were five teen-aged students en route to a college recruitment event, along with the drivers of the bus and truck. Some of the dead were ejected from the bus, he said.
The crash happened on Interstate 5, about 90 miles north of the state capital, Sacramento. The students were from the Los Angeles area.
The truck left a southbound lane at a 10-degree angle, crossed a 58-foot median into a northbound lane, hit a Nissan Altima and then struck the bus which was behind the Nissan, Rosekind said. There were no barriers in the median, he said.
"There is no indication of tire marks from braking in the median or in the northbound lane," Rosekind said.
The driver of the Nissan said flames were coming from under the truck's cab, although her passenger did not see the flames, Rosekind said. He did not identify the driver or passenger, but they were interviewed by California news media and Bonnie and Joe Duran said the truck was on fire before the collision.
"I was heading along in the outside lane and I looked over and saw the FedEx truck coming straight for me, and he was in flames already," Bonnie Duran told a CBS television affiliate.
The preliminary investigation showed that the bus driver swerved to the right in an attempt to avoid the crash.
"There was clearly reaction on the part of the bus driver," Rosekind said, adding "We can differentiate that from the truck driver, where we see no (skid) marks."
Blood samples from the two drivers would be tested for alcohol, medication or illegal drugs, Rosekind said.
"We don't know whether the FedEx driver had fallen asleep, whether he experienced a mechanical failure with his vehicle or whether there was a separate collision on the southbound side that caused him to lose control," said Lieutenant Scott Fredrick, the lead California Highway Patrol investigator.
CHP also raised the possibility that a separate collision on the truck's side of the road could have been a factor.
A powerful explosion from the impact was heard throughout nearby Orlando, Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones said.
The five students and a college recruiter who were killed were on their way to visit Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, as part of a program to help disadvantaged college hopefuls. More than 30 were injured.
A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are likely to remain on-site for about two weeks for an independent review of the accident.
Most of the FedEx truck, which was hauling two semi-trailers, was consumed in the fire, Rosekind said earlier.
The fire was so intense it could take days or weeks before some of the bodies can be identified. Investigators will have to rely on dental records or in some cases DNA testing, he said.
An NTSB spokesman also said there was a chance that the fire destroyed any electronic tracking modules on the bus which would have recorded the speed and braking.
TWO OTHER BUSES ARRIVED SAFELY
The stricken motor coach was one of three buses of students traveling from Southern California to participate in a spring break recruitment program. The two other buses had arrived safely at the campus before the crash.
Nestled near the redwoods about 100 miles south of the Oregon border, the university every year invites high school seniors from disadvantaged backgrounds or who may be the first in their families to attend college to tour the campus.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in Southern California, said some of the 19 students from its high schools who were on the tour rode on the ill-fated bus, but it could not say whether any of them were among the victims.
The bus was carrying 44 to 48 students and several chaperones, highway patrol spokeswoman Lacey Heitman said. About 34 people were taken by air and land ambulances to hospitals with a variety of injuries, police said.
A representative for the Glenn County coroner's office said on Saturday evening no identities of the dead had been released.
Among those killed was Humboldt State recruiter Arthur Arzola, 26, who worked out of the Southern California community of Rancho Cucamonga. A recently engaged couple serving as chaperones was also among the dead, media reported.
Jonathan Gutierrez, 17, told NBC's "Today" show that after the crash the bus filled with smoke and students broke windows to escape. "It was a very surreal moment," he said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Dana Feldman, Dan Whitcomb and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Eric Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in San Francisco, Jonathan Allen in New York and Colleen Jenkins from North Carolina; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Scott Malone, David Gregorio and Chris Michaud)