California Highway Patrol dispatchers said the drivers of the truck and bus were among the dead along with seven other people who were riding on the bus.
The crash happened a little after 5:30 p.m. on Interstate 5 near Orland, a small city about an hour-and-a-half north of Sacramento.
The bus was one of two that the admissions office at Humboldt State University had chartered to bring prospective students from Southern California up to tour the Arcata campus, Humboldt’s Vice President of Administrative Affairs Joyce Lopes said.
University police were trying to determine which school districts the students were from and fielding telephone calls from anxious parents, according to a statement on the school’s website.
“Our hearts go out to those who have been affected, and we are here to support them, and their families, in any way possible,” Humboldt State’s President Rollin Richmond said.
A CHP dispatcher says the bus and truck were on opposite sides of the freeway when the truck crossed a grass median and slammed into the bus, causing an explosion and fire.
Investigators say the truck driver might have been trying to avoid a passenger car that was also involved in the crash, which shut down shut down north- and southbound traffic on the freeway.
Bonnie Kourvelas, a FedEx spokeswoman, said in a statement Thursday night: “Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in the tragic accident on I-5 in California. We are cooperating fully with authorities as they investigate.”
A first responder who helped set up a triage at the scene said 36 or 37 people received injuries ranging from severe to minor burns, broken legs and noses and head lacerations.
“The victims were teenage kids. A lot of them were freaked out. They were shocked. They still couldn’t grasp what happened,” Jason Wyman with the Orland Volunteer Fire Department said.
“You hear about it in the news, but you never seen anything like that,” he said.
Wyman said when he drove a water truck to the highway, both the bus and truck were fully engulfed in flames, sending thick, dark smoke into the air.
He said he was first focused on putting out the fire, and once it was under control he saw dozens of people walking wounded.
“The first victim that was taken out of the bus was severely burned,” Wyman said.
Five people were taken to Enloe Medical Center in Chico with minor to moderate injuries; four more were on the way, hospital spokeswoman Christina Chavira said.
Another five were taken to Mercy Medical Center in Redding in fair condition.