Orland bus crash: Family, friends mourn Jennifer Bonilla, a 'star student' at LA's Dorsey High School

82308 full

Rosa Bonilla and her husband were driving to Las Vegas Thursday to renew their wedding vows. Then she got word that her sister, Jennifer Bonilla, may have been in that fiery bus crash in Northern California that claimed 10 lives. The happy trip turned somber as the couple returned to Los Angeles.

The lack of information and confusion about the survivors prompted Bonilla, her mother and other members of the family to drive seven hours to Orland, CA on little sleep early Friday morning.

An hour later, they turned back. The math sadly confirmed everything they needed to know.

"The sheriff notified us that 10 people were dead, five were kids, five were adults," Bonilla said. "And there was only five kids missing, and Jenny was in that list."

Related: Orland bus crash: FedEx semi didn't brake before crash

Jennifer was a 17-year-old who attended Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. She was described as a star student and was participating in a program to encourage kids to be the first in their family to attend college.

Jennifer was on her way to furthering her education. Besides being courted by Humboldt State University, UC-Santa Cruz was also calling with scholarships to help pay the tuition.

She boarded the bus on Thursday at Union Station to visit the Northern California campus with a small secret: she had already committed to her first choice, UC Santa Cruz, scholarships in tow.

There really was no reason for her to be on the trip, except for maybe to enjoy a quick weekend getaway with some friends.

Now, the family is collecting donations for her burial.

On Saturday, dozens of Jennifer’s classmates piled into Rosa Bonilla's apartment in South Los Angeles. They paid their respects, snacked on pizza and pan dulce, and swapped stories and pictures.

The tiny apartment was jammed with so many teenagers that at one point an announcement had to be made about logging smart phones off the wi-fi. Many didn't learn until Saturday morning that she didn't survive the fiery wreck.

"I would see her every day and to think about not seeing her like that is a weird feeling," said friend Joey Sanchez. "I still can't believe it."

Jennifer played soccer and swam at Dorsey high and was part of an environmental group that cleaned the beach.

"We all saw her Wednesday," said Jose Soto, who has known Jennifer since Audubon Middle School. "I see why most people like her — she was that friend you could always talk with."

And it seems that Jennifer was planning on turning that knack for listening into a career. She often confided in Katie De La Torre – a college advisor at Dorsey high – about her plans to study psychology and become a social worker.

"She said she wanted to come back to the community and provide psychological help to teenagers because she went through a lot herself," De La Torre said. "I never really had to ask her if she had something done, because her answer was always yes."

Even though Jennifer described herself as awkward, she had many friends — even after she decided to come out.

"She was strong. Every time something tragic would happen, she would be the one keeping others positive," said Maria Francisco, Bonilla's girlfriend.

They met freshman year during a Dorsey high physical education class. Maria would sometimes convince Jennifer to walk instead of run laps so they could chat.

"I noticed she would make everyone laugh," Maria said. "I was like 'I want her to be my friend!'"

They swapped music and books — "Collide With The Sky" by post-punk band Pierce the Veil and The Hunger Games series were shared favorites. Maria didn't get a chance to talk to her the day she left, and only learned about the accident hours later from a classmate's text message.

Lourdes Farias is Jennifer’s cousin. They had planned to room together at Humboldt State, before Jennifer chose UC-Santa Cruz. The idea of splitting up was difficult, but they agreed to be excited for each other's path.

"Now, not so much," Lourdes said.

At one point Saturday, Jennifer’s sisters clustered around their mom, who immigrated from El Salvador. She spoke in Spanish about the dental records they sent to Orland for final identification. A DNA test is also being done, according to the family.

"We did mention that she was really short, 4-feet 10-inches," said Nancy Bonilla, the oldest of the sisters. "They would probably know which one was her."

The Los Angeles Unified school district, Los Angeles School Police Association and the Friends of Safe School USA have established the LAUSD Family Support Fund to help families cope with unexpected expenses. Also, Luis Ordonez, Jennifer’s brother-in-law, mobilized his biker friends to collect donations.

Ordonez said his 4-year-old daughter is taking it especially hard. In addition to losing her aunt, Haley is also saying goodbye to her favorite babysitter. 

"She used to comb my hair, and I used to say ‘I love you’ to her," the toddler said.

blog comments powered by Disqus