ORLAND -- It was supposed to be a two-day taste of college life far from home for three busloads of kids headed to Humboldt State University, a tremendous thrill for low-income and first-generation students from the Los Angeles area.

But with the campus in the Redwood Empire town of Arcata about 200 miles away, a freak head-on accident involving one of the buses and a big rig on an arrow-straight stretch of Interstate 5 ended the field trip Thursday evening in an explosive scene of carnage.

Ten were killed: Five students, three adult chaperones and the drivers of both vehicles. Some of the bodies at the scene were burned beyond recognition and family members were being asked to provide dental records for identification.

Survivors of the wreck of a bus and a FedEx tractor-trailer line up to load onto a bus for transport to a Red Cross station in Orland on Thursday.
Survivors of the wreck of a bus and a FedEx tractor-trailer line up to load onto a bus for transport to a Red Cross station in Orland on Thursday. (Dan Reidel — Enterprise-Record)

"If that's not possible we can resort to DNA testing, but that puts us further behind," said Glenn County Undersheriff Larry Jones.

Out of 48 on the bus, another 31 people were taken to hospitals stretching from Sacramento to Redding, with 10 ambulances and four helicopters rushing to the area after the 5:40 p.m. crash.

Students aboard the bus described hearing a tremendous crash followed by chaos of smoke and flames, with kids breaking windows to escape after the FedEx truck apparently veered across the grassy highway median and first struck a car -- the occupants escaping serious injury -- and then barreled into the tour bus.

Steven Clavijo, a senior from Santa Clarita, told The Associated Press that he was trying to sleep when the vehicle started shaking, followed by the impact boom.


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"We knew we were in major trouble," he said.

Banning High School senior Jonathan Gutierrez tweeted disbelief about what had happened.

"I was asleep and next thing you know I was jumping out for my life," he wrote, later telling reporters from his hospital bed that he was flung from his seat into a scene of smoke and spreading fire, with fellow students smashing out windows to escape.

"It was hard to breathe in there," he told ABC News. "The smoke was everywhere. You could not see where you were going ... People were panicking and just throwing themselves out the window."

Clavijo said that after he got out, there were two more explosions and he and other survivors looked on in helpless horror as flames consumed the bus, knowing that peers were still trapped inside. Witnesses described kids trying to get away from the wreckage and cross the roadway -- some running, some shuffling -- before the explosions.

Sheriff Larry Jones said most of the dead were found at the front of the bus or lying on the ground in front of it, although two were in the middle.

Neighbor Victoria Posvancz, 19, described a young man engulfed in flames approaching a chain-link fence separating the road from residences, asking onlookers for help. But there was no water or fire extinguisher available.

"We kept telling him to stop and roll, but he couldn't even do that because he was traumatized," said Leticia Rodriguez, 16, who was at the scene with her father.

The California Highway Patrol, which is investigating the accident along with the National Transportation Safety Board, said it was not known on Friday why the truck driver crossed over the freeway and it would take at least three months to complete the analysis. Factors to be examined include whether there was mechanical trouble, a preceding accident in the southbound lanes, or if he fell asleep at the wheel. There will be a reconstruction of the crash by 3-D mapping and diagrams, said the CHP.

The buses were headed to Humboldt State for the school's Spring Preview for prospective students. The other two buses arrived Thursday evening and counselors were made available for those students.

School officials from around the state weighed in on the tragedy.

"These injuries and loss of life are made all the more poignant by the fact that these students were preparing for college, poised on the edge of an exciting time full of possibility," said state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson.

CSU Chancellor Timothy White called them the "very students that California needs to be successful going forward."

"And so we are doubly saddened by the fact that many of them are first generation and students from low income," he said, "who have done all the right academic things and had their dream of going to Humboldt State taken away by this tragic accident."

The Los Angeles News Group and The Associated Press contributed to this report.