911 Calls Released as Crash Investigation Continues

by Jana Ritter - Published: 4/18/2014

On Thursday, the California Highway Patrol released the recordings of the 911 calls from witnesses of the fiery truck-bus collision that killed 10 people. Most of the calls were from the students traveling on the bus heading towards Humboldt State University. One call came from a student who tried to recount the details of how the truck smashed into the left side of the bus, while screams of the other students could be heard in the background.

Trucks fire

The dispatcher quickly helped her focus: "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."

She was among the dozens of students narrowly escaping death through the windows before the bus exploded into towering flames and killed five students, three adult chaperones, along with the truck and bus drivers.

With the release of the 911 recordings, investigators were reconstructing how the bus driver might have reacted to the sight of the big rig, which had 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. While 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 might be able to recover some data about its speed and maneuvering by other forensic analysis. Investigators are also busy working through a three-inch-thick stack of records including the truck's maintenance history and its driver's recent shifts. It was revealed last week that 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. It will take months before the CHP, and a parallel investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board can make that determination.