The crash — one of Indonesia's worst road accidents this year — turned the small hospital in the town of Situbondo into a makeshift morgue and left the girls' hometown of Sleman near Yogyakarta in a state of shock.
Weeping students filled the hallways of Yapemda Special High School in Sleman, about 280 miles east of Jakarta. Some parents collapsed in grief as word spread of the bus tragedy and a waiting crowd saw only two of three buses return home from the trip.
"I'm just shocked and depressed that my daughter died in this way," said Poniman, a father of a 17-year-old student who was confirmed dead. Like many Indonesians, he uses only one name.
"I never imagined this would ever happen," he said, breaking down in tears. "Until this morning I thought my daughter would be safe. But when I saw other buses return and she was not on them, I realized something was terribly wrong."
The youngsters were heading home from a trip to the island of Bali when their bus crashed into a semitrailer late Wednesday and burst into flames, police said. A delivery truck carrying vegetables smashed into the back of the bus on the busy highway near Situbondo, about 500 miles east of the capital, Jakarta.
Witnesses said they arrived to see the bus engulfed in flames and students struggling in vain to escape.
"It is horrible to see this," said Mahroji, a schoolteacher on one of the other buses. "Most of the student seemed to be trying to get out from the back door of the bus. All the bodies have been burned and could not be identified."
The semitrailer's driver fled the scene and police were still searching for him Thursday, said Situbondo Police Sgt. Iswahyudi. He said the truck's brakes appeared to give out as it descended a hill toward the bus and the driver likely will be charged.
"We are still questioning witnesses to find out what happened," he said.
Authorities at a nearby hospital began the grim task of identifying bodies. Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition, officials said. As of midday Thursday, 26 had been identified.
In Sleman, surviving students on the other two buses couldn't fathom how their friends — whom they had spent three days with at the beaches and temples of Bali — were now gone.
"I can't believe she's dead," said Purwaningsih, who recalled spending Wednesday with her friend Tri Astuti snapping photos and eating dinner. "I still remember how we were joking around just before the crash."
Traffic accidents are a common hazard on Indonesia's often crowded, poorly maintained highways. Motorists often flout traffic laws, and police can be bribed to ignore infractions such as speeding.
Road accidents kill 1.17 million people worldwide each year, mostly in developing countries. Every year, some 200 Americans die in motor vehicle accidents abroad.
By Michael Casey