After 13 months of investigation, why the driver of a FedEx tractor trailer veered across a Northern California roadway and crashed head-on into a tour bus may never be known, California Highway Patrol officials said Friday.
The big rig crossed a freeway median and slammed into a tour bus carrying a group of Southern California high school students on April 10, 2014. Five students, three chaperones and the drivers of both vehicles died in the crash on Interstate-5 near the Northern California city of Orland.
The Silverado Stages bus was taking the students, from many schools in Southern California, to Humboldt State University for a campus visit.
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CHP officials said Friday the FedEx drive, previously identified as Timothy Evans, was responsible for the crash, but they were unable to prove whether driver fatigue was a factor. They also could not prove if the driver had an undetermined, undiagnosed medical condition. But they did conclude there was no willful intent to cause the crash.
"Our investigators carefully analyzed every aspect of this collision and concluded that environmental factors, roadway conditions and vehicle maintenance were not the cause," said CHP Northern Division Chief Ruben Leal. "The collision was caused — for unknown reasons — by the driver’s unsafe turning movement, and although fatigue or an undetermined medical condition may have contributed, there is no conclusive evidence."
Investigators did, however, determine that the drivers were not using cellphones and were not impaired by drugs or alcohol.
Before making public the report and conclusion, Chief Leal and other CHP officials met in private to brief surviving bus passengers and family members of those who died. The meeting occurred at a community center in Hacienda Heights. Afterward, they expressed thanks to the CHP for the thorough investigation, but also expressed some disappointment over the failure to reach a more definitive conclusion.
"I just wanted to know why," said Evelyn Guzman, a surviving passenger who recovered enough from her injuries to enroll at California State University Northridge. "We didn't get that."
The fire ignited by the collision caused such devastating damage to the human remains of Evans that autopsy was not able to determine if he had suffered a heart attack or other critical health crisis that may have incapacitated him, according to CHP Sgt. Nate Parsons, who oversaw the investigation. However, the investigative team saw no evidence Evans had a pre-existing medical condition, Sgt. Parsons said.
Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board released information gathered in its own investigation, which included one witness who said the driver of the FedEx delivery truck appeared to be unconscious and slumped over moments before the collision.
The NTSB released 102 documents online, including still frames of security camera video that showed the FedEx driver at a fast-food restaurant, shortly before beginning the ill-fated trip south from the city of Weed. Another driver there said Evans appeared clammy and pale.
NTSB investigators in 2014 found no sign that the driver attempted to brake before the crash, when it traveled at an 8-degree angle across the 58-foot median, passing through oleander bushes, and into the freeway's northbound lanes. But the NTSB's preliminary report into the incident didn't provide a conclusion on the driver's condition before the crash.
The CHP investigation also found the driver crossed into opposite lanes without applying the brakes or "making any type of evasive steering."
"Some evidence of possible fatigue or sleepiness included: the long straight section of roadway, the departure angle of the tires consistent with fatigue-related collisions, that the driver was alone and did not attempt to avoid a collision, and an eyewitness report the driver was slumped toward the driver’s window as he approached oncoming traffic," the CHP concluded.
Investigators looked at the driver's schedule in preceeding days, and found he had sufficient rest time so that he did not fit a fatigue profile.
Despite listing those factors, CHP officials said they could not determine for certain whether he had become drowsy and was not aware the big rig had begun veering to the left.
"I wanted to know something happened," said Evelin Jimenez, his brother Ismael was killed. For her, the lingering uncertainty "made it worse."
FedEx "will carefully review the CHP report," FedEx Communications Manager Fred McCluskey said in a written statement. "However, we will reserve comment until the NTSB has also completed its work and finalizes and releases its findings."
Also pending are multiple civil suits now moving through Los Angeles Superior Court.
"If your driver falls asleep ... you're responsible for that," said Jeff Wells, an attorney representing four of the plaintiffs.
The trauma is still felt by those who survived, said one parent, Gaylord Hill, whose son Miles Hill is now enrolled at San Francisco State University. "He has nightmares and flashbacks ... his mental state is still pretty devastated."
Patrick Healy contributed to this report.