LOS ANGELES - Harley Hoyt, an 18-year-old senior at Valhalla High School in San Diego, was listening to his headphones to pass the time during the 12-hour bus ride up California's Interstate 5 when he was catapulted forward, his face smashing against the seat in front of him.
All around him, people were screaming. The front of the bus was "like an accordion," he said. A truck outside was on fire. He kicked the emergency door open and jumped out.
"Everyone was piling out the windows," he said. "It was like a battle scene. People were screaming, crying, pulling out their hair. Everyone was bloodied. My clothes were covered in blood."
Hoyt was among the 43 high school students from urban corners of Southern California who had boarded the bus bound for another world: They had been accepted to Humboldt State University, a countryside college in California's northern reaches, and were headed there for a recruiting visit.
Many would be the first members of their family to attend college.
Then, as the bus rolled north past Sacramento on Thursday night, the long trip turned tragic in a violent instant. A FedEx tractor-trailer jumped a grassy highway divider and barreled into the bus. Panicked teenagers escaped through windows and ran to safety as the front of the bus exploded in flames.
Five students and three of their chaperones did not make it out alive. Neither did the two drivers. Hoyt said a group of terrified students ran across the freeway and watched, helpless, as flames engulfed the bus, where friends and classmates remained trapped.
"I'm so grateful I'm alive," Hoyt said. "I was in the back. One of my buddies that I had just met, he was up front. I'm sure he didn't make it. The chaperone and his fiancee, they didn't make it."
The students involved in the accident were taking part in Preview Plus, an annual program in which Humboldt State provides transportation and lodging to enable hundreds of disadvantaged students who have been accepted to the university to visit the campus. The bus was one of three chartered to bring high school students to the campus Thursday.
Jarad Petroske, a university spokesman, said the program, which dates to the 1990s, is for students from the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, particularly those from low-income homes.
It coincides with the university's annual spring preview, held Friday, which has events for prospective students and their families.
"The weekend will proceed as planned," Petroske said. "It'll be taking on a more somber tone, of course. Everybody on campus is devastated."
Aboard the buses that did arrive Thursday, many of the students and chaperones had learned of the tragedy on their phones. That night, the university's president, Rollin Richmond, met with them, explained what he knew about what had happened, offered support services to those who needed them and then left to visit the injured passengers in hospitals.
Larry Jones, the sheriff and coroner of Glenn County, where the accident took place in the town of Orland, said the crash could be heard from a quarter-mile away.
"This was a horrific collision," Jones said. He added that a fire "with very high temperatures" broke out almost immediately after the impact.
Mitchell Huezo said his 18-year-old niece, Angela Corro, had been a passenger on the bus. She was in stable condition and receiving treatment for smoke inhalation, he said.
"She couldn't talk," Huezo said. "She can't really breathe because she inhaled so much smoke."
Mark Rosekind, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said Friday that the agency would be gathering information over the next one to two weeks. He said it will review whether the stretch of California freeway where the bus was struck should have had a barrier along the median to prevent head-on collisions.
Michael Myvett and Mattison Haywood were headed together toward a college in the California redwoods where he once was a student and now was taking teens with dreams of doing the same.
Also on the horizon: A wedding. But they would never make it to either.
The Los Angeles couple spent their last moments together in the fiery crash on a Northern California freeway.
The couple were chaperones on the bus carrying would-be students from Southern California to Humboldt State University, officials and relatives said Friday.
"He just died," Myvett's grandmother Debra Loyd told The Associated Press, her voice cracking. "He was my grandson, the greatest grandson any grandparent could ever have."
She said she got the call from authorities in the late morning Friday, and they asked for dental records to confirm his death.
Myvett, a therapist for autistic children, was a "bubbly and positive man," beloved by all. He had given Haywood an engagement ring at the Louvre in Paris on Christmas Day, his employers said.
Myvett had worked at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Torrance for two years. He was "able to connect with our kids on a level few others could, and he contributed to their well-being in such a positive and profound way," the center's operations manager Kyle Farris said in a statement.
MARISOL AND MARISA SERRATO
Teen twin sisters from Southern California took starkly different paths when they got on two buses headed for Humboldt.
Marisol Serrato, 17, who'd been accepted to the school, arrived without incident Thursday.
Her sister Marisa, five minutes younger and on the school's wait list, was missing on Friday night, and a sheriff's deputy had called her family for dental records because authorities believe she was probably killed.
The Southern California family was trying to stay positive for the girl they called "Marisita" as the last-born baby of the family.
"I haven't gotten any sleep," brother Miguel Serrato said. "I close my eyes and picture my little sister."
Another student, Adrian Castro, was a senior and a football player at El Monte High School east of Los Angeles who was considering going to a California state university nearer to home but decided to give faraway Humboldt a chance and a visit.
"He told me two days ago, 'Should I go up and check it out anyway?' " said father Raul Castro, who would see his son for the last time when he dropped him off for the trip on Thursday morning.
Later that night he got a call from Adrian's mother, who had heard from the California Highway Patrol that he had died.
"Adrian Castro will be missed as a student and football player," El Monte football coach Joel Sanchez told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune. "He was a good young man with a bright future. He will always be remembered by the El Monte family."
The third chaperone, 26-year-old Arthur Arzola of Rancho Cucamonga, was an admissions counselor for the Northern California university who lived and recruited students in the Los Angeles area.
In his online bio for the job, which shows him with a broad grin in the forest-green colors of Humboldt State, he called himself "thoughtful, compassionate and friendly," and said he liked to walk on the beach when he visited Humboldt.
A university statement praised him for his passionate commitment to helping low-income and first-generation students get into college.