RED BLUFF, Calif. (AP) — Federal investigators said Sunday that they haven’t found physical evidence confirming a witness’ claim that a FedEx truck was on fire before it slammed into a bus carrying high school students, killing 10 people in Northern California.
National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind said that investigators are not ruling out a pre-impact fire, but a fire specialist did not find evidence of flames as the truck crossed a median, sideswiped a Nissan Altima and crashed into the bus.
The bus was carrying Southern California high school students to a campus tour of Humboldt State University. Five students, three adult chaperones and both drivers died in Thursday’s collision in Orland, a small city about 100 miles north of Sacramento. Dozens were injured with cuts and burns.
The driver of the Altima, who survived with minor injuries, told investigators and reporters Saturday that she had seen flames emerging from the lower rear of the truck’s cab as it approached her car. The bus was gutted and the truck was a mangled mess after an explosion sent flames towering and black smoke billowing, making it difficult for investigators to track the source of the fire.
Rosekind said a blood test of the FedEx truck driver could indicate whether he inhaled smoke before his death. A family member told the Sacramento Bee that the truck driver was Tim Evans, 32, of Elk Grove, Calif.
The biggest questions for investigators include why the truck had left its lane and left no tire marks, suggesting the driver did not brake. The investigation will review maintenance records and the driver’s medical history, experience and potential impairment.
The bus’ black box-style electronic control module was recovered and will be analyzed. The truck’s device was destroyed, but other steps will be taken to analyze its speed and maneuvering.
Beyond the cause of the crash, the NTSB will examine if any of its safety recommendations would have reduced the death and injury toll.
In this case, the transportation authorities are focusing on seatbelts and fire safety, though it has no authority to enforce measures it recommends.
The victims included passengers who were thrown from the bus, which had seatbelts. Rosekind said it’s difficult to issue guidelines to enforce seatbelt use when they are not mandated on buses.
Bodies recovered from the bus were charred beyond recognition. The transportation board has also called for measures to detect and suppress fires and make buses less vulnerable to blazes after a 2005 bus fire killed 23 nursing home evacuees escaping Hurricane Rita in Texas. Rosekind said investigators will examine the materials and design of the bus to withstand fires.
NTSB will also evaluate whether there should have been a barrier on the median to help prevent head-on collisions. Barriers are required when medians are less than 50 feet wide; this one was 60.
The 44 Southern California high school students on the bus, many hoping to become the first in their families to attend college, were on a free trip arranged by Humboldt State University. The university chartered two more buses to bring more than 500 prospective students to the campus for a three-day visit. Those who made it to the university were sent home earlier than scheduled Saturday morning in light of the tragedy.
Joan Lowy reported from Washington, D.C. Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles contributed to this story.