The trip started in Los Angeles on Thursday morning with a minor fender bender, something the students gave little thought to as they headed off to visit Humboldt State University with dreams of being among the first in their families to go to college.
It ended in a massive fireball along Interstate 5 near Orland that killed 10 people, injured 31 others and sent dozens of high school students running for their lives after a FedEx truck rammed into their bus at 5:40 p.m.
“I woke up to it coming straight at us,” Santiago Calderon, 17, said before dawn Friday morning as he sat in the tiny waiting room of St. Elizabeth Community Hospital in Red Bluff.
The Oxnard High School senior, one arm in a sling, cuts on his legs, his cargo shorts flecked with blood, said “the bus was instantly on fire.”
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“People began to panic,” Calderon said. “We were just trying to find a way out.
“In the back of my mind, I knew it was going to explode. We were just running to the side of the road.”
In hospitals throughout Northern California on Friday, survivors of the crash talked about how lucky they were and reflected on the capricious nature of how they ended up in seats closer to the rear than the front, where most of the dead were sitting. They said students broke out windows in the flaming bus to escape.
Calderon’s seat was in the third row from the rear; he was bumped to the back after forgetting his parental consent form. When the crash happened, the tour bus was about four hours from its destination – Humboldt State University in Arcata and a Spring Preview day for Southern California high school students.
Calderon’s bus was the last of three in a caravan to the university. The other two made it to campus safely. The crash left students in hospital rooms frantically calling parents to tell them they were alive.
“We were still in Oxnard,” said Calderon’s father, Juan.
Juan Calderon and Santiago’s mother, Corrine Pinon, grabbed the first flight north. They walked into St. Elizabeth about 3:10 a.m. just as the waiting room’s television flashed images of the horrific scene in Orland hours earlier.
It was the first glimpse they had of the deadly collision.
“We didn’t know how bad it was until just now,” Pinon said. “He was supposed to be in front of the bus, but he forgot his consent form.”
Survivors were taken to hospitals throughout the region, including Enloe Medical Center in Chico. Calvin Aceves, 17, a student from Riverside, was among those on the bus when it crashed. He woke up to hear a woman screaming. The next thing he saw was a ball of fire at the front of the bus.
“It was like a movie scene,” Aceves said. “I thought I was dreaming.”
After the crash, he stumbled from the bus and crossed the highway, he took his shirt off, tore it into pieces, and gave it to people who were bleeding from cuts on their faces.
When he calmed down, he called his family.
“All I want to say is, pray for those students and tell those students like me to always tell their loved ones that they love them,” Aceves said Friday.
One of the students who died in the crash was originally sitting behind Aceves, but moved toward the front of the bus to plug his iPod into an auxiliary speaker, Aceves said.
Another survivor, Jonathan Gutierrez, a 17-year-old student from Banning High School in Wilmington, was sleeping in the back row of the bus when he was jolted forward by the sudden collision. He slammed into the seatback tray in front of him, cutting the skin above his eyebrow, then oriented himself and climbed out a window. He fell several feet out of the bus, injuring his leg, then ran across the south lane of the interstate.
After the collision, students smashed the windows on the bus and piled out through an emergency exit, he said.
“They were yelling, ‘Oh, my God, what happened?’ ” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said he called his mother to tell her he was safe, then sent out a tweet, the first of many he posted during the night.
“Can’t believe this just happened ... I was asleep and next thing you know I was jumping out for my life.”
Later, when he was admitted to the hospital, Gutierrez took a picture of himself bandaged with the caption “but first ... let me take a selfie.”