Witnesses describe panic, fear at scene of fatal Calif. bus crash
Neighbors described a horrific scene where victims on fire were screaming for help
By Paige St. John and Chris Megerian
Los Angeles Times
ORLAND, Calif. — Witnesses to the immediate aftermath of a fiery crash Thursday between a FedEx freight truck and a bus carrying students to Humboldt State University, killing at least 10, described a gruesome, panicked scene.
Victoria Posvanvz, 19, was getting ready for her shift at a local grocery store when she heard "what sounded like a bomb."
She ran out of the house, and saw mothers calling their children inside, and other neighbors running. Turning, she saw a huge black cloud rising from Interstate 5 four houses away, and then, a man in flames running along the fence.
"He was just pleading for help, on fire. It impacted me so much," Posvanvz said in a soft voice, tears beginning to run down her face as she stood in the street by the crash site Friday morning.
"Everyone was yelling at him to get down and roll, and he just stood there," she said. "It was so sad. He saw all of us looking at him and we couldn't do anything to help."
She stopped, unable to speak.
"He was yelling, 'Somebody help me!'"
Five students died in the accident, along with three chaperones and the drivers of the bus and the truck, according to authorities. More than 30 others were injured in the crash, which occurred shortly after 5:30 p.m. Thursday when the FedEx truck crossed a grassy median on I-5 and slammed into the bus packed with students en route to Humboldt State University.
Authorities said at a news conference Friday that a team of investigators would be using high-tech 3D modeling to reconstruct the crash scene in an effort to determine why the FedEx truck apparently veered from its path.
Pomali Thitphaneth, another resident who, along with her children, witnessed the aftermath, described being shocked by the carnage, including an arm dangling from the charred bus.
She also saw the burning man frantically looking for help.
"His pants were on fire, his shoes were on fire. His face, you couldn't even tell. It was gruesome," she said.
She yelled at him to drop to the ground and roll, to put out the flames, but "he didn't respond."
"So we were all on the other side, feeling helpless."
She said the man eventually fell to the ground, screaming for help. When California Highway Patrol officers arrived minutes later, a neighbor threw over a fire extinguisher that they used to douse the man.
Officials have not released the identities of those killed in the crash.
Some students escaped the burning bus through an emergency exit, but others smashed windows. Among them was Jonathan Gutierrez, 17, who fell to the pavement after climbing out.
Wearing only his socks -- he had taken off his shoes while trying to fall asleep -- he ran across the highway with other students.
"They were just yelling, 'Oh my God, what just happened?'" Gutierrez said. "They were crying."
He suffered a gash over his right eyebrow when he hit the plastic tray in the back of the seat in front of him after being hurled forward upon impact.
Company officials confirmed in statements that the bus was operated by Silverado Stages and the truck by FedEx. In the wake of the crash, uninjured students were brought to the Veterans Memorial Hall in Orland, where the Red Cross set up a shelter.