The FedEx truck that plowed head-on into a bus filled with prospective college students was already on fire before the deadly crash, witnesses told two California TV stations.
Bonnie and Joe Duran, who were driving in a Nissan Altima in front of the bus, told KNBC-TV Los Angeles they saw flames behind the cab of the truck before it crossed the median into the path of the tour bus around 5:40 p.m. Thursday on Interstate 5 near Orland, Calif.
The truck hit the back door and trunk of the car before crashing into the charter bus filled with a dozen high school students and their chaperons.
Early reports from California Highway Patrol officials said the fire began after the collision, but the crash is still under investigation by the CHP and the National Transportation Safety Board.
NTSB investigator Mark Rosekind told the NBC Today's Erica Hill that the agency is aware of the witness accounts and will be analyzing tracking modules on the bus to glean information about the vehicle speed and braking. Fire may have destroyed a similar device on the FedEx truck, he said.
FedEx spokeswoman Bonny Harrison said she did not know whether tracking information from the truck would be transmitted in real time to FedEx.
"We're just letting the investigators do their work," Harrison said.
The crash killed five teens, three adult chaperons and the drivers of both the truck and the bus. The CHP confirmed more than 30 people were injured, Humboldt State said in a statement posted on its website.
Among the dead were newly engaged couple Michael Myvett and Mattison Haywood, who had agreed to chaperon the 44 teenagers from Southern California on a visit to Humboldt State University. Myvett, who graduated from Humboldt State with a psychology degree in 2007 and worked with autistic children, was eager to make the trip with his fiancée.
Haywood was "the love of his life," and "to be a liaison and representative for high school students who wanted to attend Humboldt was in sync with his personality, wanting to facilitate peoples' achievement of their dreams," Kyle Farris, a colleague at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Torrance, told the Associated Press.
Among the high school students were 17-year-old identical twins Marisol and Marisa Serrato, who traveled on separate buses. Marisol's bus arrived safely. Marisa died in the crash, her brother Miguel Serrato told AP.
"Marisol is devastated," he said.
Adrian Castro, 19, a senior and a football player at El Monte High School east of Los Angeles, had considered going to a state university closer to home but decided to give faraway Humboldt, home of sports teams known as the Lumberjacks, a chance, his father, Raul Castro, told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
Raul Castro dropped his son off to meet the bus on Thursday morning. Later that night, he got a call from Adrian's mother, who said she had heard from the California Highway Patrol that the young man had died.
Humboldt admissions counselor Arthur Arzola, 26, who recruited for the school in the Los Angeles area, died of burns sustained in the crash. On Humboldt's webpage, Arzola described himself as "hardworking, thoughtful, compassionate and friendly."
Colleagues remembered Arzola for "his passionate commitment to helping low-income and first-generation students get into college," the university said. "He dedicated his career to that work."
The teenagers, who hailed from dozens of Southern California high schools, were traveling as part of the university's Preview Plus program, which began in 1989 as a way to introduce low-income or first-generation prospective college students to the university. The students would live in dorms for the weekend, explore the campus with current college students and learn about the university's offerings.
"Our hearts go out to the families, loved ones, classmates and communities of everyone touched by this tragedy," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday. "I can only imagine the excitement of these high school students as they were on their way to visit a college campus, and the pride of the adults who were accompanying them. Our young people are our greatest treasure, and this loss is heartbreaking."
Contributing: The Associated Press