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High hopes turn to horror

L.A. students' college aspirations land them on a bus destined not for Humboldt State, but tragedy

April 12, 2014|Chris Megerian and Paige St. John and Scott Gold

ORLAND, CALIF. — When they climbed on board the bus, most were strangers. Not friends, nor classmates.

They were called together by aspiration: They were headed to Humboldt State University through a program designed for underprivileged students. Most would be the first in their family to go to college.

They were called together, too, by fate: They were assigned to this bus because their last names began with the letters A through L.

A little after 5:30 on Thursday evening, now 500 miles into the trip, their bus carrying 48 people thundered past the fertile farms that line Interstate 5. A FedEx tractor-trailer veered across a wide median and struck the bus head-on. The impact shook nearby homes and sent a plume of black, acrid smoke billowing above the Sacramento Valley.

Authorities said Friday that 10 people were killed, including the drivers of both the truck and the bus, three adult chaperons aboard the bus and five students.

"Lives forever altered," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "Lives lost just as they were beginning to be transformed."

An additional 30 people, mostly students, were being treated at seven hospitals for a variety of injuries -- burns, fractures, smoke inhalation.

Among the adults killed were two chaperons who had recently gotten engaged. Michael Myvett, 29, graduated in 2007 from Humboldt State. He and his girlfriend, Mattison Haywood, got engaged outside the Louvre in Paris over the holidays, a family friend said.

Myvette worked with disadvantaged youths at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Torrance and remained active with his alma mater.

"He was an extraordinary individual," said Kyle Farris, operations manager at the center.

A third chaperon who was killed had worked since his high school days in Chino, where he was a straight-A student, to help underprivileged kids go to college. The death of Arthur Arzola, 26, Humboldt State's Southern California admissions counselor, was confirmed by his stepmother.

"He wanted to make it an even playing field. He wanted them to have the same opportunities," said the stepmother, Stephanie Arzola. "He always just wanted to just help students be passionate about school and have them move on to higher education, make something of themselves, and have a career."

The students on the bus were headed to Humboldt State through a 20-year-old program called Preview Plus that seeks to enroll low- income students, many of whom would be the first in their families to attend college.

Each spring, the campus in remote, foresty Arcata welcomes more than 100 high school seniors, mainly from the Los Angeles, Fresno and San Francisco Bay areas, for a weekend.

Three busloads of roughly 120 students were headed to the campus on Thursday. Two left from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, including the one that crashed and another that was about two hours ahead. The bus that crashed had been delayed when it got in a separate accident, which one student described as a "fender bender," not long after beginning the trip. A third bus left Thursday from Fresno.

The students had been accepted to Humboldt State and were weighing school choices and financial aid offers. During the program, the teens are housed in dorms, given tours of the school and its clubs and meet with professors and older students. They were scheduled to visit the farmers market in downtown Arcata and join in a scavenger hunt.

The university pays for the trip. Historically, the program has been seen as important in part because the campus, nestled in a small, artsy city and surrounded by redwoods, can feel unsettling to students from low-income communities in the Los Angeles area. But Humboldt State is also a part of a 23-campus state university system built to cater to those very same students -- "the students California needs to be successful going forward," CSU Chancellor Timothy White said Friday.

"The soul of the CSU has been cut deeply," he said.

Scores of investigators from local, state and federal agencies descended on the accident site on Friday.

The accident occurred in a long straightaway of the interstate. California Highway Patrol Officer Matthew Thompson said the FedEx truck, which had been southbound prior to the accident, came across the median "almost horizontally" before striking the bus.

The Highway Patrol said it was investigating several possible explanations for the crash, including whether the FedEx driver fell asleep or whether the truck suffered a mechanical failure or had been involved in a separate collision in the southbound lanes that caused it to veer across the median.

CHP investigators will be assisted by the National Transportation Safety Board, which dispatched a team on Friday. Investigators will use "sophisticated surveying and mapping equipment," along with 3-D diagraming, to reconstruct the crash, including roadway and weather conditions, Fredrick said.

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