NTSB: No evidence of pre-impact fire in bus crash

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RED BLUFF, Calif. (AP) - Federal investigators said Sunday that they haven’t found physical evidence confirming a witness’ claim that a FedEx truck was on fire before it slammed into a bus carrying high school students, killing 10 people in Northern California.

National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind said investigators are not ruling out a pre-impact fire, but a fire expert did not find evidence of flames as the truck crossed a median, sideswiped a Nissan Altima and crashed into the bus.

“This is all preliminary and factual information,” Rosekind said at a news conference. “We are not ruling anything out.”

The bus was carrying 44 Southern California high school students to a free campus tour of Humboldt State University. Many were hoping to become the first in their families to attend college. Five students, three adult chaperones and both drivers died and dozens were injured in Thursday’s collision in Orland, a small city about 100 miles north of Sacramento.

Bonnie Duran, who drove the Altima and survived with minor injuries, told investigators and reporters Saturday that she had seen flames emerging from the lower rear of the truck’s cab as it approached her car. The bus was gutted and the truck was a mangled mess after an explosion sent flames towering and black smoke billowing, making it difficult for investigators to track the source of the fire.

Rosekind said a blood test of the FedEx truck driver could indicate whether he inhaled smoke before his death. A family member told the Sacramento Bee that the truck driver was Tim Evans, 32, of Elk Grove, Calif.

On the day of the crash, the Sacramento-based driver delivered freight to Weed, Calif., and returned with an empty semi-trailer and a partially loaded semi-trailer, although investigators do not know the contents.

The biggest questions for investigators include why the truck had left its lane and did not leave behind tire marks, suggesting the driver did not brake. The investigation will review maintenance records and the driver’s medical history, experience and potential impairment.

The bus’ black box-style electronic control module was recovered and will be analyzed. The truck’s device was destroyed, but investigators will take other steps to analyze its speed and maneuvering.

Beyond the cause of the crash, the NTSB will examine if any of its safety recommendations could have reduced the death and injury toll.

In this case, the transportation authorities are focusing on seatbelts, escape routes and fire safety, though it has no authority to enforce measures it recommends. This not only includes examining defects and mistakes, but also looking for what voluntary features and measures the companies involved used that can serve as lessons for future crashes. The bus was a brand-new 2014 model in operation for a month, and its owner, Silverado Stages, has a strong safety record.

The victims included passengers who were thrown from the bus despite being voluntarily equipped with seatbelts. Under a rule long sought by Rosekind’s agency, all new motor coaches and some other large buses must include three-point lap-shoulder belts beginning November 2016. Regulators did not require existing buses add seatbelts because it would have been too expensive.

Rosekind said it’s difficult to issue guidelines to enforce seatbelt use while they aren’t mandated.

“In the absence of a flight attendant, the likelihood of anyone on a bus buckling is slim,” said Larry Hanley, president of Amalgamated Transit Union representing bus drivers and advocating for policies reducing driver fatigue.

Bodies recovered from the bus were charred beyond recognition. The transportation board has also called for measures to detect and suppress fires and make buses less vulnerable to blazes after a 2005 bus fire killed 23 nursing-home evacuees escaping Hurricane Rita in Texas. Rosekind said investigators will examine the materials and design of the bus to withstand fires.

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