LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The family of the women who was driving the ill- fated tour bus full of Southland college students has said they've been told the woman died a hero, intentionally steering the bus so an oncoming truck would hit her, it was reported today.

Talalalei Lealai-Taiao, a Sacramento resident, was among the two drivers who perished in the impact and fire caused when a cargo truck crossed a wide median and hit the bus head-on April 10 on Interstate 5 at Orland. Five students and three adults accompanying the kids on a trip to their new school, bucolic Humboldt State University, were also killed.

Her son and daughter told Sacramento television station KXTV Friday night that their mother was the best bus driver in the world, and had driven their school bus when they were small.

Survivors have told them ``that if it wasn't for my mom, they wouldn't be here,'' Jordayna Lealai-Taiao told the TV station. Witnesses said the woman braked hard and turned to the right, taking the full impact of the oncoming FedEx dual trailer and truck headon on the bus's left side -- and her seat.

``They did express to us that my mom was a hero.''

Her brother, Jordan, agreed. ``From what it looks like in the investigation that's going on, and from what we see and hear, my mom brought that impact to her side'' of the bus, he told KXTV Friday.

Federal and state investigators said the bus driver braked hard and steered to the right as the truck appeared. No skid marks or other sort of indications of braking were left by the Volvo tractor of its twin set of FedEx trailers, the CHP and NTSB have said.

The veteran bus driver had won honors for her driving record, and was selected to drive the Jamaican bobsled team during the 2002 Olympic games in Salt Lake City.

Lealai-Taiao had taken over driving the bus at Sacramento, taking about 45 passengers from Los Angeles to Humboldt State, near Eureka in the very northwest corner of the state. The 17-hour drive was to include hours of monotonous driving across pancake-flat farmland, followed by a twisting and steep highway crossing of the Trinity Alps between Redding and Eureka.

Five students were killed in the crash: Denise Gomez and Ismael Jimenez, from Animo Charter High School in Inglewood; Jennifer Bonilla from Los Angeles Dorsey High School; Adrian Castro from El Monte High School; and Marisa Serrato from Norte Vista High School in Riverside.

The four adults killed in the crash were chaperones Arthur Arzola and Michael Myvett, Myvett's fiance Mattison Haywood and the FedEx truck driver, Tim Evans.

Posted by Amy King