Coach crash kills 26 Poles in French Alps

23rd July 2007, Comments 0 comments

GRENOBLE, France, July 23, 2007 (AFP) - Twenty-six people were killed Sunday when a coach carrying Polish pilgrims skidded out of control and into a ravine in the French Alps, emergency services said.

GRENOBLE, France, July 23, 2007 (AFP) - Twenty-six people were killed Sunday when a coach carrying Polish pilgrims skidded out of control and into a ravine in the French Alps, emergency services said.

One of the two drivers on board was among those who died, officials said, while a further 24 people were injured, 14 of them seriously.

The coach, which was carrying 47 pilgrims and a tour guide, was going down a steep and winding road between Gap and Grenoble early Sunday when, according to survivors, its brakes failed near the town of Vizille.

The party, mostly elderly and from the Szczecin region of northeast Poland, was returning from the Roman Catholic shrine of Notre Dame de la Salette, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to two children in 1846. 

Polish President Lech Kaczynski flew to Grenobles to visit the victims in hospital late Sunday, saying the accident was "one of the most serious disasters in the history of Poland."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who accompanied him, told reporters: "I am overwhelmed by the scale of the catastrophe."

He promised to follow "very closely" the investigation into the crash.

The Polish-registered vehicle smashed through a safety barrier on the side of the road and hurtled 40 metres (130 feet) onto the banks of the river Romanche below, where it burst into flames.

Motorcyclists behind the coach at the time told investigators it was moving downhill at 70 kilometers per hour (45 miles) with its brake lights on. Sparks flew as it picked up speed on the last stretch, they said. 

Locals immediately rushed to try to put out the blaze with buckets of water.

"I heard the sound of the coach crashing and I came rushing to the scene. There were bodies lying everywhere. They'd been flung from the burning coach," said Christiane Bonnard, who lives locally.  

"I also saw part of a severed foot. It was really traumatic."

A 22-year-old survivor told Polish news agency PAP that the coach had been going "fairly slowly" until "suddenly, something cracked in the front of the coach and we heard the driver cry out."

"Hold on to your seats! The brakes have gone," the driver cried, according to the woman who was pulled out of the flaming coach by a friend.

The pilgrims were on a tour of European Roman Catholic shrines and had spent the night at Notre Dame de la Salette, officials said in Warsaw.

"They left Poland on July 10 and were on their way back," said foreign ministry spokesman Robert Szaniawski.

The ministry set up a telephone hotline and the government has arranged for relatives to fly to Grenobles on Monday.

At the Sainte-Marie church in Stargard Szczecinski, where 26 of the bus party were from, prayers were held Sunday.

"Families are coming here in their uncertainty, each of them viewing it as a tragedy. We must suffer this, without doubting divine providence and mercy," said Father Zawitkowski, according to PAP.

A special service also took place at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

Known as the Route Napoleon because it was the road taken by the emperor on his return from Elba in 1815, the tortuous RN85 from Gap to Grenoble has been the scene of many accidents over the years.

Three coach crashes at exactly the same spot in the 1970s caused 77 deaths, and during a visit to Sunday's accident Jean-Louis Borloo, the minister for road transport, said he would draw up a list of accident blackspots in France.  

But Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who also visited the scene, told reporters: "The coach never should have been there. If the rules had been respected today, there would not have been any deaths."

Prosecutor Serge Samuel told a press conference that the stretch of road was prohibited to heavy vehicles unless equipped with so-called "electronic braking" -- a back-up decelerator which cuts power to the engine.

He said it was "far too early to say" if the Polish coach had this.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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