For 7 Valley students, a safe trip to Humboldt State tinged with sorrow

The Fresno BeeApril 15, 2014 

It was supposed to be a joyous moment: Seven Valley high school students and other teens from the Bay Area traveling to tour a Northern California college where they had been accepted for admission.

Instead, shock, sadness and even tears engulfed the group when it arrived last Thursday night at Humboldt State University, a Cal State school near Eureka.

After they got to the campus, the Valley students and their chaperones, including Charles West, a teacher at Design Science High in central Fresno, learned that another bus of students making a similar trip had been involved in a fiery crash that left 10 people dead.

"I was shocked," West said. "Everyone was shocked. For a long time, we didn't know who was hurt or how many."

West tried to console the students on the bus, only one of whom he had met before that day.

"They were concerned, and they were saddened," West said of the young people. "Some were crying."

Around 9 p.m. Thursday, a third bus, traveling from Los Angeles, arrived safely in Arcata, the small city where Humboldt State is located.

Students from both buses spent the night on the phone with their worried parents trying to grasp what had happened.

The seven Valley students boarded their charter bus around 8:30 a.m. Thursday. According to West, the seven students were from Manteca, Madera South, McLane, Dos Palos, Clovis North and Design Science high schools.

The Valley students were set to join more than 100 other high schoolers from all over California for the two-day tour of Humboldt State. They were part of the university's Educational Opportunity Program, which assists students from low-income households.

"All of the students had been accepted to the university," West said. "They wanted to make up their mind on whether or not to go. The university was holding a preview-plus program where students got to stay in the dorms, meet the professors and tour the campus."

The bus left Fresno at 9 a.m. and traveled north on Highway 99 before heading west to the Bay Area to pick up 40 students in Emeryville. From there, the bus headed north on Highway 101 before arriving safely at Arcata around 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

However, the Humboldt State faculty and students sent to welcome the Fresno bus performed a drastically different task when West and the students arrived.

Another bus taking students and chaperones from Los Angeles to the preview days was in a crash around 5:30 p.m. on Interstate 5 north of Sacramento.

That bus had left Los Angeles and traveled along the traditional north-south route of I-5. A FedEx big rig swerved across the freeway median and collided with the bus. The fiery crash killed the drivers of both vehicles and some students and chaperones, and injured dozens more. It took place about 100 miles north of Sacramento in Orland.

Two of the Humboldt State-bound buses took the same route on I-5, and the Fresno bus probably would have used that route if not for its Bay Area swing.

That was not lost on West, who noted that the bus that crashed "was the exact same (type of) bus as we were on. The bus was identical -- same company."

The crash is under investigation by the California Highway Patrol and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The reporter can be reached at metro@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.

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