Orland Bus Crash: NTSB finds no evidence of fire prior to crash, vows to use tragedy to review bus safety laws

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The National Transportation Safety Board continued its investigation Sunday into a fiery crash that left 10 people dead Thursday, when a Federal Express semi careened over the median of the I-5 Freeway and collided head-on with a busload of students from the L.A. area. In a press conference Sunday, the agency said it had not seen evidence that the Fed Ex vehicle was on fire before it crashed, as an eyewitness had previously stated. Meanwhile, many students who survived the crash or had been on other buses headed to Humboldt State University returned home to worried parents and friends in Southern California.

Updates:

Update 1:05 p.m.: NTSB finds no evidence of fire prior to crash, vows to use tragedy to review bus safety laws

The National Transportation Safety Board will use the outcome of an ongoing investigation into the Orland crash to examine bus regulations nationally, and said it saw no evidence of the Fed-Ex truck was on fire before crashing. 

Witnesses say the FedEx vehicle was on fire before impact, but the NTSB investigation so far has turned up conflicting reports.

“Our fire expert reviewed the median and highway and found no physical evidence prior to impact,” NTSB spokesman Mark Rosekind said, though he added they haven’t ruled anything out.

"Are we ready to rule out pre-impact fire on the truck? Nothing is ruled out yet," he added.

You can see a video of the full conference below: 

Video: NTSB brief on Orland bus crash

Rosekind used commercial airliners' tight regulations as an example of how the agency might approach bus safety in the future.

“Anyone whose ever been on a airplane knows that one of the first thing that happens is ‘your attention please’ to go over all the safety features,” he said.

Lax oversight of seatbelts is among safety concerns.

At this time, there’s no requirement for seatbelts in commercial buses, but Rosekind said its something the agency consider recommending. 

The NTSB will also analyze window exits. All the windows in the  2014 motor coach carrying the students and their chaperones were exits, according to the NTSB. 

The agency is examining what the emergency evacuation procedures, how they were communicated and how windows were labeled. 

“If that was jammed, could that be why we saw people kicking windows out?” Rosekind said.

There also wasn’t a median to divide the highway from on coming traffic – another place the agency will examine safety recommendations.  

The NTSB is also working to obtain other critical variables such as the types of materials on both vehicles and the experience and ages of the drivers. Even the speed of bus may be downloaded on the from the electronic control module, still intact, according to the agency. 

Rosekind said the agency will be combing through the FedEx driver's last 72 hours, including retrieval of his phone records to see if it was in use at the time of the accident.

Annie Gilbertson, KPCC

Update 12:11 p.m.: Humboldt State President: We'll do our best to get interested students back 

Two busloads of students who made it safely to Humbolt State University returned to their homes Sunday morning, Humboldt State University President Rollin Richmond told KPCC. 

He said he'd spoken with many of the students in the hospital and at the school's campus, and said he was touched that many still expressed interest in attending the school in the fall. 

"One of things that really impressed me as I was talking to some of the students who were injured and who survived the accident. A number of them said to me 'we very much want to come to Humboldt and we're sorry we weren't able to come to campus'," Richmond said. "We're going to try to do our best to arrange for them to come up here — and we'll try to avoid bringing them up on a bus." 

Richmond said the prospective students were paired up with students on campus for the weekend. 

""One of things that we do regularly and did especially this time," he said, "was to get them connected to some of our students who stayed with them overnight and helped them the next day as they got information from the campus."

Los Angeles-area students make up the bulk of the student body, Richmond said. He added that about 900 prospective students visited the campus this year, 400 or so from Southern California. Of them, he said, about 500 students would return in the fall.

Shirley Jahad, KPCC

9:19 a.m.: NTSB examines claim truck was on fire before crash

Federal investigators are looking into a driver's claim that a FedEx tractor-trailer was already on fire when it careened out-of-control across a freeway median and slammed into a bus taking high school students on a college tour, killing 10 people in a fiery wreck.

The investigators are looking for more witnesses who could corroborate the driver's claim, and planned to examine crash scene evidence for clues of a fire before the vehicles exploded into towering flames on a Northern California highway, National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind said Saturday.

He said the truck left no skid marks, on either the roadway or the median, as it veered into oncoming traffic, sideswiping a Nissan Altima before crashing into the bus. Five students, three adult chaperones and both drivers died in Thursday's collision on a stretch of Interstate 5 in Orland, a small city about 100 miles north of Sacramento.

Some of the victims were thrown from the bus, Rosekind said.

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

The woman who drove the sedan told investigators and a KNBC-TV reporter that flames were coming from the lower rear of the truck cab.

"It was in flames as it came through the median," Bonnie Duran said. "It wasn't like the whole thing was engulfed. It was coming up wrapping around him."

Initial reports by police made no mention of a fire before the crash.

The bus was gutted and the truck was a mangled mess after the fiery crash, making it difficult for investigators to determine whether a fire started in the truck before impact. Rosekind said investigators planned to look at blood tests to determine whether the FedEx driver inhaled smoke before the collision, and whether he was impaired.

A blood test will also be conducted for the bus driver, who had only been driving a short time after relieving another driver during a stop in Sacramento. Rosekind said more than 145 feet of tire marks showed that the bus driver tried to brake and swerve to the right to avoid being hit.

He said 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.

In addition to the cause of the crash, federal transportation authorities are examining whether fire safety measures they previously recommended for motor coaches could have allowed more of the 48 bus occupants to escape unharmed.

Bodies recovered from the bus were charred beyond recognition. Dozens of students had injuries including burns, and several remained hospitalized.

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

Fire safety has been a longstanding concern of the NTSB.

After a 2005 bus fire killed 23 nursing home evacuees escaping Hurricane Rita in Texas, the agency called for safety standards that could make buses less vulnerable to fire, including improved protection of fuel tanks. More recently, the NTSB says buses must have sophisticated suppression systems to control fires, much as high-rise buildings have sprinkler systems.

The NTSB, which investigates accidents and their causes, has no authority to require safety changes it recommends.

But a bill passed by Congress in June 2012 directed the Department of Transportation to conduct research and tests on ways to prevent fires or mitigate the effects, among other safety issues. That included evacuating passengers, as well automatic fire suppression, smoke suppression and improved fire extinguishers. Representatives of the bus industry told Congress that manufacturers were increasingly and voluntarily adding such features.

As part of its investigation into Thursday's crash, the 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. — Associated Press

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