Occupant and Fire Safety Top Concerns in Investigation of Fatal Motorcoach Crash

Photo By: AP/The Record Searchlight, Greg Barnette
A school bus arrives to transport victims to a Red Cross shelter in Orland, Calif., after a charter bus carrying high school students, a FedEx truck and a Nissan Altima crashed on Interstate 5 killing at least nine people April 10, 2014, near Orland.

Though more details have emerged this week about the fatal truck–motorcoach crash in northern California, officials maintain that it could take months to determine the cause of the fiery collision.

Nineteen students were travelling by motorcoach as part of a convoy from Los Angeles area schools to attend Spring Preview Day at California State University at Humboldt, located about 110 miles south of the California-Oregon border. Names of the victims were released this week amid vigils and memorials in grieving communities. The crash occurred in Orland, about 100 miles north of Sacramento and still more than 200 miles short of its final destination. School buses arrived on scene to transport the survivors to a Red Cross shelter (pictured, above).

California Highway Patrol investigators used a semi and a motorcoach in an attempt to recreate the April 10 crash that killed 10 — including five high school students, three adult chaperones, the bus driver and the truck driver. Officers shut down Interstate 5 in both directions four times over the past week to record video footage and take other measurements from both a southbound 2007 Volvo freight truck and a 2014 Setra motor coach, said Capt. Todd Morrison. The next round of tests analyzed the braking of the bus and the truck, he said. Investigators also studied the skid marks to try to determine the truck’s and bus’ speed, as well as to determine what occurred right before impact, Morrison noted.

One student reportedly kicked in a bus window and pulled several passengers to safety before flames consumed the bus. Survivors have recounted how Ismael Jimenez, 18, of Inglewood Charter High School sacrificed his own life in order to save others. “Ismael busted open a window at the front of the bus as it was filling with smoke and people were getting burned. He started lifting kids out in an effort to save them,” said charter school chief executive Marco Petruzzi in a statement. “Ismael will be remembered as someone who forever affected the lives of young people he barely knew. He was indeed a hero.”

Mark Rosekind, an NTSB board member, told STN that investigators arrived on the scene the following morning and would continue collecting information for two weeks to find out why the driver of a FedEx tractor-trailer truck crossed a grassy median and hit the motorcoach head on, causing both vehicles to erupt into flames.

“We will issue urgent safety recommendations if we find anything major on scene that must be addressed immediately,” said Rosekind, adding that it was very early in an investigation that may last several months.

Probe Will Take Time

Victor Parra, president and CEO of the United Motorcoach Association, told STN he hopes the NTSB research team uncovers what ignited the fire that caused the high number of passenger fatalities and injuries.

“We don’t know where that fire was coming from. First of all, it didn’t come from the bus because nothing on the front of the bus would have ignited — the engine is in the back. There is no fuel supply in the front. And diesel does not perform the same way as gasoline; it doesn’t explode in flames,” he said. “Hopefully, NTSB investigators will find out what caused the fire because that was the tragedy. There were people killed on impact, but the kids on the bus died because of the fire, not the impact. It was fire that really exacerbated the problem.”

He added that the other key issue is what happened to the truck driver right before he lost control and why he did not apply the brakes according to investigators.

“Apparently the bus driver did apply brakes to try and avoid this, but it happened pretty quickly. The truck was propelled upwards when it hit the bus. It was just a fiery mess,” Parra continued. “The NTSB investigators are second to none and they do great forensic work, so hopefully we will know something soon.”

Rosekind said the NTSB team is investigating such factors as highway features and design, human performance (i.e., driver’s work and rest schedule), the motor carrier company, survival factors, vehicle safety and fire safety.  In addition, they are focusing on hardware, witness reports and memories. Investigators are also trying to determine whether or not the passengers were wearing seat belts at the time of the crash.

On Sunday the NTSB team said they reviewed cell phone video recorded from inside a car that the truck sideswiped before it slammed into the charter bus. Bonnie Duran, who was riding in the car, reported she spotted flames spreading from underneath the FedEx truck, but investigators discounted this claim after finding no physical evidence of a fire before the collision, explained Rosekind.

Safety advocates are wondering if federal standards on passenger egress, or how easily bus riders can open windows and emergency exits, may be lagging, according to the Associated Press. The NTSB recommended in February 1999 that federal regulators issue new standards for large buses, or motorcoaches, and NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman raised the issue again at a 2011 congressional hearing, stating the recommendation was one of many that regulators had not acted on.

Legislation passed by Congress in 2012 requested that the Department of Transportation conduct research and testing on ways to prevent or mitigate fires in motorcoaches as well as improve evacuation. It is up to the secretary of transportation to decide whether new standards are needed.

Now the NTSB is taking a closer look at both occupant and fire safety. The latter figured prominently on the board’s 2014 Most Wanted List of safety improvements. The safety board has several open recommendations pertaining to motorcoaches.