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October 25, 2014

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Student struggles to recount fiery Calif. bus crash

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Jeremy Lockett / AP

Massive flames are seen devouring both vehicles just after the crash, and clouds of smoke billowed into the sky Thursday April 10, 2014, until firefighters had quenched the fire, leaving behind scorched black hulks of metal. The FedEx tractor-trailer crossed a grassy freeway median in Northern California and slammed into the bus carrying high school students on a visit to a college.

California Bus Crash

Officials and California Highway Patrol Officers look over the remains of a tour bus that was struck by a FedEx truck on Interstate 5 Thursday in Orland, Calif., Friday, April 11, 2014. At least ten people were killed and dozens injured in the fiery crash between the truck and a bus carrying high school students on a visit to a Northern California College. Launch slideshow »

ORLAND, Calif. — Most of the 911 calls from witnesses to last week's fiery truck-bus collision that killed 10 were matter of fact. Then there was the one from a passenger: With shrieks in the background, the student struggled to recount how a truck came roaring toward them.

"What did the bus hit?" the dispatcher asked.

The student who had just escaped from the bus started to explain that the truck smashed into its left side.

The dispatcher tried to refocus the student: "Just with one or two words, tell me what the bus hit."

"The bus hit a FedEx truck," the student replied. "The FedEx truck came into us."

"Was it head on?"

"Yes, head on."

The California Highway Patrol released the recordings Thursday as investigators returned to the scene about 100 miles north of Sacramento to reconstruct aspects of the crash.

The bus was on an approximately 700 mile trek to Humboldt State University. Many of the students on board stood to be the first in their family to attend college.

Dozens escaped through windows before the bus exploded into towering flames just before 6 p.m. on April 10. Five students and three adult chaperones died, along with the truck and bus drivers.

As the CHP released the recordings, the agency's investigators were reconstructing how the bus driver might have reacted to the sight of the big rig, which sideswiped a car before hitting the bus.

The CHP briefly closed the stretch of interstate where the crash happened, and drove the same model Serta 2014 bus northbound at about 70 mph. The driver braked so investigators could gauge how its speed would have dropped.

On the southbound side, a driver in the same model 2007 Volvo truck released the accelerator, in a similar effort to understand how its speed might have changed.

Video cameras on both vehicles recorded what each driver could have seen before the crash.

The reconstruction did not involve any collision. Investigators will use what they learned to calculate how fast each vehicle was traveling before the wreck.

The truck's data recorder was destroyed in the explosion and fire, but investigators said they may be able to recover some data about its speed and maneuvering by other forensic analysis.

Investigators are working through a three-inch-thick stack of records including the truck's maintenance history and its driver's recent shifts, CHP Capt. Todd Morrison said. The FedEx driver had no prior moving violations, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

It is too early to say whether mechanical failure or driver error caused the truck to careen out of control, Morrison said. That determination by the CHP, and by a parallel investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, will take months.

The driver of the car struck first by the truck told investigators the truck was in flames before the crash, but Morrison said the CHP has found no evidence to corroborate that account. NTSB investigators also found no physical evidence of a pre-impact fire or other witnesses relating the same story.

Glenn County coroner Larry Jones said all but two victims have been identified. He said that initially, his office was looking for one student believed to be among the dead, but it turned out the student had never boarded in the first place.

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