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Fire-suppression systems, now under study by the federal government, are designed with blazes that start in engines and wheels in mind. The systems, akin to a hand-held extinguisher automatically dousing the first embers and sparks, aren’t suited for massive blazes following collisions, said Joey Peoples, a vehicle fire safety expert for SP Fire Research.

“Once you have a fire, it’s now simply a matter of how do we buy enough time to evacuate all the passengers,” Peoples said.

Almost every window on the bus involved with Thursday’s crash was available as an emergency exit, Rosekind said Sunday. Students escaped through them before the fiery explosion that devoured the vehicles.

However, safety standards to make large buses easier for passengers to escape after a crash have not been adopted 15 years after accident investigators called for new rules.

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.

Humboldt State 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.

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Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., Terry Chea in San Francisco and Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles contributed to this story.