"We were just driving along toward Mammoth, and in the southbound lane there was a car upside down, on fire, coming right across into our northbound lane, and it came so close that we could feel the heat in our van," said student Jacqueline Lutz.
The California Baptist University cross-country running team was involved in a deadly, fiery crash near the town of Bishop on Monday night. The California Highway Patrol said three people were killed in the accident, and a dozen people were injured.
A total of 45 students and three coaches were headed up to Mammoth in three vans. It was supposed to be a trip for high-altitude training to build endurance, but the trip ended in tragedy.
Authorities said a Ford Expedition heading southbound on Highway 395 crossed the center median and hit one of the white vans head-on at 8:20 p.m. Monday. The SUV crashed into the van and burst into flames, killing the driver of the van.
Five people were inside the Ford Expedition that crossed the center-divider line; two of those were killed, according to the California Highway Patrol. T
The two were recent graduates of Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, Amanda Post and Natalie Nield. Two other students in the SUV were severely burned. The San Diego students were former cross-country runners, but it's not clear where they were headed.
Two other university vans were not involved. A third car crashed into the burning SUV.
The cause of the accident has not been determined.
"The driver lost control of his SUV. The SUV traveled across the southbound lanes, crossed into the northbound lanes, where it struck a van carrying approximately 13 passengers," said CHP Asst. Chief Stephen Webb. "At that time, the Ford Expedition, which was the SUV, burst into flames, and as a result, we have three known fatalities at this time."
Cheerleading coach Wendy Rice, who was driving the van, was killed.
There were 12 cross-country runners in the van at the time of the accident. All 12 students were taken to a local hospital, but six have since been released. Two students were still in critical condition Tuesday, and authorities say one student was in extremely critical condition.
The injured were rushed to Northern Inyo Hospital in Bishop.
"We had four doctors and 12 nurses come in. Some of them were at home or at dinner, and came in when they heard the sirens, so we had a pretty good response," said Northern Inyo Hospital Emergency Room Nursing Manager Andrew Stevens. "It was a large incident but we had a good response."
The six critically injured victims of the crash were flown to trauma centers, two of them to Reno, two to Bakersfield, and two more to Southern California.
Of the 12 who were injured, seven have been treated and released from various hospitals by Tuesday night.
San Dimas resident Steve Gomez's sister reportedly used to work with Wendy Rice. On his way home from a vacation trip, he heard about the accident.
"If you take [the 395 section where they crashed] slow, you're fine," said Gomez. "It's not really that dangerous. It gets really windy, as it is right now, especially at night, it can get pretty windy at times, and you've got to be really focused on the road."
Rice had volunteered to drive for the trip just to help out.
Dr. Mark Wyatt of California Baptist University said Rice was going to be starting her second year at the university.
"She was going to be starting her second year with us," said Wyatt. "She came as the founding coach for our cheerleading team, but in her short time with us had already become a beloved member of our community, had been very active in helping to recruit about 40 members of the cheer squad, and of course those students are profoundly shaken by the loss."
"She was known as a caring person, a young mother of two children," said Wyatt. "She and her husband and their family lived in Corona. She's going to be missed."
Classes don't even begin for the fall semester until Sept. 1, but everyone on campus knew about the tragedy.
On campus Tuesday, flags were flown at half-staff. A sign outside the campus bookstore urged the entire community to pray for the Cal Baptist family.
"This is a pretty close community," said student Jessie Leak. "It's going to be a big shock and a really difficult start for the athletic department this year."
Parent Belinda Makata was on campus Monday night as the cross-country students were getting ready to leave.
"I just remember seeing all the children, they were smiling, the parents hugging them, you could feel the excitement around you as they were packing up to go on the event," said Makata. "It just gives me goosebumps thinking about it, it's so sad."
Most of the injured students are from the Inland Empire.
Alicia Cantanese from Corona and Rebecca Trupp from Riverside sustained major injuries.
Other students suffered minor injuries: Alyssa Neimeyer from Temecula; David Solis from Corona; Brenda Perez from Riverside; Jennifer McGuire from Stevenson Ranch; Jonathan Monteon from Chino; Jonathan Hernandez from Moreno Valley; Hanna Ingulsrud from Ontario; Kayla Beaudoin from Corona; Miguel Gonzalez from Hacienda Heights.
Grief counselors were on hand at the university to console students and family members and help them deal with the events.
A memorial service will be planned for Rice later this week.