The high school students, nearly 100 of them, gathered before dawn on April 10 at Los Angeles' Union Station. Arthur Arzola, the smiling 26-year-old admissions counselor who personally recruited most of the students to attend Humboldt State University's two-day Spring Preview event, was there to greet them.
Hailing from more than three dozen Southern California high schools, the students were split alphabetically into two groups and loaded onto a pair of buses chartered by HSU that made their way through downtown LA to Interstate 5, and started the slow trek north toward Arcata. The mood inside the second bus was full of nervous teenage energy, with some students introducing themselves and making small talk as others fiddled with their phones. One of the adult chaperones on the trip, a gregarious, playful HSU alum named Michael Myvett, agreed to make the trip with his fiancé Mattison Haywood, who he'd met a few years earlier while both were studying at HSU. Students said Myvett worked the bus as it got on the road, walking the aisle, engaging students and making everyone feel comfortable. "Throughout the trip, he was coming to the back of the bus talking to everybody, making us laugh," Daebreon Kendrick later told NBC News.
The buses made a meal stop in Bakersfield and the students milled about. When it was time to get back on the road, some switched buses, wanting to sit near an old friend or make new ones. The second bus put on a movie. "(Awkward), we're watching a movie on the bus and this full on sex scene started playing," Banning High School's 17-year-old Jonathan Gutierrez wrote on his Twitter page. About an hour later, Gutierrez fell asleep. At about 5:40 p.m., 100 miles north of Sacramento in the small town of Orland, Gutierrez was jarred awake.
A FedEx big rig hauling two trailers was travelling south when, according to witness reports, it caught fire. With flames visible in the truck's undercarriage, it swerved, clipping a Nissan Altima, before veering at a 10-degree angle, crossing the median and heading directly into oncoming traffic. Crash investigators later said they were unable to find any skid marks, indicating that Tim Evans, who was driving the semi, did not brake before impact. The truck and the bus collided head on, with flames and explosions quickly engulfing both vehicles.
Jeremy Lockett was on his way from his Red Bluff home to practice with his rock band in Orland that afternoon when he came across the crash minutes after it happened. "I pulled over and rolled down my window," he said, "and as soon as I did, it was like driving by the sun. It was hot. It was raging." Lockett said he would later think it was a miracle when he heard most in the bus made it out alive. In the days following the crash, the nation would become captivated with tales of heroism and survival, stories like those of Kendrick and 18-year-old Ismael Jimenez, who broke open windows and helped students off the bus as it filled with smoke and fire. Students fled across the freeway — dozens of them injured — and were transported by a fleet of ambulances to six hospitals from University of California Davis to Redding.
Within minutes of the crash, word started trickling back to HSU that something terrible had happened. No one seems quite sure who was the first on campus to get word of the accident, but it was Interim Director of Housing Patty O'Rourke-Andrews who caught wind of it on social media and notified campus administrators, who were in the process of readying the campus for Spring Preview Plus, during which it would receive more than 500 high school students who had been admitted to the university. O'Rourke-Andrews called Vice President of Student Affairs Peg Blake, who happened to be having a post-meeting debriefing with Vice President of Administrative Affairs Joyce Lopes and Vice President of University Advancement Craig Wruck.
Lopes said the three vice presidents huddled around a computer and started making some calls, checking with University Police dispatch and law enforcement in the Orland area. "We realized quickly it had been a quite serious accident," Lopes said, adding that UPD dispatch started receiving floods of calls from worried parents and relatives within minutes of the crash. "Because of how fast the calls were coming in, we needed to come up with a solution."
The administrators decided to launch the campus' emergency operations center and activate its emergency call tree. HSU President Rollin Richmond said he was probably sitting down to dinner — he can't quite remember — when he got the call from Wruck telling him what had happened. Richmond said he hung up the phone and headed for the operations center. There, administrators decided on a course of action. They felt they needed to get some people on the ground near the crash site to meet with victims and their families, as well as to gather information from first responders. But they also needed to take care of the students from the other Los Angeles bus, some of whom had friends on the bus that crashed and would be arriving on campus in a couple of hours. And they needed to set up a system to make sure worried families hundreds of miles away could get clear, accurate information as to the whereabouts and condition of their children.
By 6:30 p.m., within an hour of the crash, the center was up and running with about 15 to 20 people working to set up a hotline phone system. Lopes said they set up a call center with a projector in the front of the room and trained admissions staff, bookkeepers, safety services officers, facilities maintenance staff and others on the fly to take calls. They quickly realized some families calling in spoke only Spanish, so they brought in translators. Meanwhile, they reached out to the local California Highway Patrol, which sent two officers to act as liaisons to law enforcement on the Orland area to get real-time information about the status of students and where they were being taken for treatment.
The first huge task was figuring out exactly who was on the bus that crashed. Administrators knew the buses were loaded alphabetically, but they didn't have an exact list. The only person who did was likely Arzola. They also knew it was likely some students had swapped buses en route. The administrators needed information quickly, but they needed to ensure it was accurate. So staff furiously took down names and contact information from families calling in as others worked with CHP to take down the names of victims, their condition and where they were being sent for treatment. Once that information was confirmed, they contacted family members to relay it. Within a couple of hours, Lopes said, they had a good idea of exactly who was on the bus that crashed and what their status was.
As operations at the center hit stride, shortly after 8 p.m., Richmond, Blake and Wruck set off for the Jolly Green Giant Commons, where the other busload of students from LA was arriving. With them, they brought four professional counselors from HSU's student health centers. Richmond said he and his colleagues briefed the students on the crash, checked them in and spoke with each of them individually, offering them counseling and other services. With the list of students who'd arrived safely on campus, officials could confirm who was on the other bus. Richmond said a current HSU student was assigned to each of the visiting students from LA to be with them through the night so they wouldn't be alone.
At about 11 p.m., after greeting the students who made it to campus, Wruck and Richmond got in the car and headed for Redding, where they started a tour of hospitals, meeting with victims of the crash and consoling families. Richmond said he was immediately struck by the resilience of the students, many of whom had left Los Angeles on April 10 excited at the prospect of becoming the first member of their family to attend college. "I was impressed by the courage of the students involved," he said. "I'll never forget looking at a young woman with a huge contusion on her head, and she was smiling and telling me she was really looking forward to becoming a student at Humboldt State."
As night turned to dawn, the emergency center at HSU kept taking calls, doling out information and even helping some families make travel arrangements to see their injured loved ones. Later that morning, Blake took the stage at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre to welcome the hundreds of students who had made it to campus safely. "We are heartbroken for everyone involved and all of their family, friends and loved ones," she said before leading the crowd in a moment of silence. Later, the university confirmed that Arzola — the charismatic recruiter who worked a second job at a fast food restaurant and was a month shy of receiving a graduate degree in educational counseling — had died in the crash.
By midday, news reports began confirming the other nine who died. Myvette, the HSU grad who worked with autistic children in Los Angeles, and his fiancé Haywood, both died, as did the drivers of both the bus and the FedEx truck. Five students also perished in the crash: Adrian Castro, a 19-year-old from El Monte High School who wanted to play football and study kinesiology at HSU; Marisa Serrato, a 17-year-old from Riverside High School, whose twin-sister, Marisol, was on the other bus that made it to campus safely; Jennifer Bonilla, a 17-year-old from Dorsey High School who was a star student and would have been the first in her family to attend a university; Denise Gomez, an 18-year-old from Animo Inglewood Charter High School who loved music and wanted to attend HSU because of its beautiful surroundings; and the 18-year-old Ismael Jimenez, Gomez's best friend, who reportedly spent his last minutes helping other students escape the burning bus. Of the dozens of students who were injured in the crash, three remained hospitalized as of April 14.
"This is the worst tragedy I've experienced in my career in higher education of 44 years," Richmond said, his voice trailing off.
As the high school students spent April 11 on campus, taking part in social activities and sessions aimed at introducing them to life at the university, the emergency center kept fielding calls, with staff working in four to eight-hour shifts on the phones. At one point early that morning, Lopes said officials became concerned about one student whose whereabouts hadn't been confirmed and whose family hadn't called the emergency center. After some frantic checking, Lopes said officials breathed a sigh of relief — he'd planned on making the trip but never boarded the bus in Los Angeles.
On April 12, HSU brought its Spring Preview to an early close, deciding the students from LA needed to be with their families. Talking with the Journal on April 14, Lopes sounded hoarse and exhausted but said she was enormously proud of her team at HSU and the way they enacted an emergency plan designed to respond to an earthquake or natural disaster and modified it on the fly to bring order to the chaos of an unthinkable tragedy. Many folks in the emergency center, Lopes said, set aside their personal grief at losing Arzola, a colleague, to help others. "They did everything they could to help, and put these students and their families above anything else that was going on," Lopes said. "I couldn't be prouder of the personnel we have here at Humboldt State University."
But the effort took a toll, and Lopes said the university was bringing in counselors specializing in helping first responders decompress to work with staff beginning April 15. "This wasn't something our staff was trained to do, and we recognize that we all took on a lot of pain and suffering in being so close to this," she said. "This was a horrifically tragic event."
Started in 1989 as a part of an effort to boost enrollment and help low-income and first-generation college students explore life at Humboldt State University, the Spring Preview event hosts hundreds of students from throughout the state for a two-day orientation event. Those attending have been admitted to the school but have not yet enrolled, and their trip is paid for by the university. The annual event has been successful and the university estimates that about 50 percent of attending students ultimately enroll at HSU. Spring Preview has been an integral part of a larger recruitment effort that has seen HSU set enrollment records in recent years and increase the diversity of its student body.
Memorial: HSU will hold a remembrance event at 12:30 p.m. on April 17 at the University Quad to “gather as a campus community and an HSU family to honor those who were affected.”Vigil: The university will hold a candlelight vigil for victims of the crash, with the gathering beginning at 5 p.m. on the HSU Quad on April 17.
Counseling: Students who need counseling or guidance in the aftermath of the accident can call the Counseling Center on campus at 826-3236, while faculty and staff can call 443-7358.Information: Students involved in the April 10 crash, and their families, can call 707-826-6327 if they need information, guidance or direction. The hotline will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through April 18.
Donations: A number of funds have been set up to help victims of the crash. For more information, visit www.alumni.humboldt.edu/giving/hsu-spring-preview-accident-support.