It was a trip to open doors and possibilities for the students, but it was cut short by a horrific crash.
Three buses — two from the Los Angeles area and one from the Fresno area — were en route Thursday evening to Humboldt State University in Arcata when a FedEx truck crossed a median and slammed head-on into one of the buses.
The collision killed both drivers, five students and three chaperones, said Lt. Bruce Carpenter with the California Highway Patrol.
The crash resulted in a fire that engulfed the truck and bus, spewing black smoke.
"I went outside, and everything was in flames already," a local resident, Luis Lopez, told CNN affiliate KXTV. "There were a couple of explosions after that."
The reason the FedEx truck crossed the median remains under investigation, the Highway Patrol said. The investigation could take months.
At least 34 people were taken to local hospitals, authorities said.
The collision occurred in Orland, about 100 miles north of Sacramento.
One of the survivors chronicled his experience through Twitter.
"i was asleep and next thing you know i was jumping out for my life," Jonathan Gutierrez wrote, saying he couldn't believe what just happened.
He wrote that he suffered a bruised leg, cut eyebrow and scratches. Later, he said his left leg was injured to the point that he couldn't walk.
"All my stuff that I packed is burned. I'm beyond thankful that I'm still here," Gutierrez tweeted.
He called the experience traumatizing.
"Seeing everyone hurt was not how (I) expected my day to go," he said.
The other two buses made it to the university, and those students were placed in dorms, Humboldt officials said.
The university is offering counseling to those students.
An annual university program brings low-income and first-generation college prospects to campus each year for a two-day visit.
The students stay in residence halls, attend events and visit with staff and students from a program that helps historically underrepresented students, the university said.
The Los Angeles Unified School District confirmed that there were 19 students from the district on the trip but that many other districts had students on board as well. District officials could not confirm whether any LAUSD students were among those killed or the conditions of their students.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved in the tragic accident on I-5 in California. We are cooperating fully with authorities as they investigate," FedEx spokeswoman Bonnie Kourvelas said.
The truck sideswiped another car before crashing into the bus. The two occupants of that vehicle were not seriously injured but were sent to a hospital for treatment.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced Friday that it is sending a team to California to investigate as well.
"One, we're going to be investigating the human, the machine and the environment, and what's critical for us especially in highway accidents if for us to collect perishable information, the kind of information that goes away very quickly," NTSB Member Mark Rosekind said.
The NTSB's role will be to determine whether anything from the accident could have a national impact.
The agency seeks to determine not just what happened but why it happened, Rosekind said.
"And then the most important thing we can do is issue recommendations so that these kinds of accidents don't happen again," he said.