22 children, six adults die in Swiss school trip coach crash
Distraught relatives flew in from Belgium Wednesday after 22 children and six adults died in a school bus crash in a Swiss Alpine tunnel, with some parents still unaware if their children were alive or dead.
Twenty-four of the 52 people on the coach were injured.
They had been returning to Belgium from a skiing holiday when the coach slammed into a concrete wall late Tuesday in a motorway tunnel near the town of Sierre.
The reason for the crash was not immediately known.
The coach had only just reached the motorway after a short descent along winding roads from the mountain ski resort, close to the Italian border.
Marianne Van Malderen, a Belgian motorist who arrived at the scene shortly after the crash, described children pinned under their seats or thrown towards the front of the coach.
“We did what we could to get out those who were unhurt,” but “it wasn’t possible to climb into the coach because its windows were so high up”, she said.
“I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. But this was worse than anything you can imagine,” said Alain Rittiner, in charge of rescue operations who arrived at the scene some 20 minutes after the crash.
The shouting from the injured children was “awful”, he said, adding that it took two hours to get all those injured out.
Twenty-two of those hurt have so far been identified, local police commander Christian Varone told a press conference. Of these, 17 are Belgian, three Dutch, one Polish and one German.
Three of those hurt are in a very serious condition, according to Lausanne university hospital doctor Jean-Pierre Deslarzes.
Those killed — from Belgium and the Netherlands — included 22 children from two Catholic primary schools, along with four teachers and both coach drivers.
A Swiss prosecutor said Wednesday the coach was not believed to have been speeding at the time.
“The speed of the vehicle is being determined. We think the vehicle was not driving too fast,” Olivier Elsig told a press conference in the town of Sion, close to the scene of Tuesday night’s accident.
The children were wearing seat belts, but “the impact of the accident was so great” that some were thrown clear along with the seats, he added.
Those hurt, three of whom were said to be in a coma, were taken by ambulance and helicopter to four hospitals after fire crews had worked for hours to cut them free from the coach’s twisted wreckage.
Belgium announced a day of national mourning, while the Swiss parliament observed a minute’s silence for the victims.
Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf were due to visit the site of the crash later Wednesday.
“When we lose a family member there are no words, because the pain is so great that there is nothing to relieve the pain,” Di Rupo told a press conference in Sion.
“Our first thoughts are with the victims, families and their loved ones,” he said, describing the accident as “a tragic day for all of Belgium”.
As well as Belgians, the children included 10 Dutch and one Pole, authorities said.
Police in the southern Valais canton told reporters early Wednesday that the tragedy was “unprecedented” and that even seasoned rescuers had been traumatised.
Surgeon Jean-Pierre Dellars said in one of the hospitals: “All the rescuers were shocked by what they have experienced.”
The injuries were so bad that the death toll could well rise, he added.
The coach, in a convoy of three hired by Catholic education authorities in Belgium’s Flanders region, carried pupils from primary schools in Lommel, near the Dutch border, and Heverlee, in the suburbs of Leuven.
“The magnitude of the accident is difficult to digest … for the moment I am concentrating on the practical aspects,” said Belgium’s ambassador in Switzerland Jan Luykx who visited the accident site early Wednesday.
“The emotional side will come when we meet with the families,” he added.
Belgian authorities said they were doing everything they could to ensure that the families of the victims were kept informed and treated with dignity, the prime minister’s office said.
But at Heverlee parish priest Dirk de Guedt said the parents did not know which children had been killed and which had survived.
Of the 22 children from the ‘t Stekske school in Lommel, five had phoned their parents but there was no news of 17 others, deputy mayor Kris Verduyckt was quoted as saying by Belga news agency.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Transport Minister Melchior Wathelet told RTBF radio. “Terribly hurt, terribly moved.
“We are all thinking like parents, with this terrible thought for those parents who will not see their children coming back today,” he said.
“Yesterday evening, they were looking forward to seeing them and they won’t see them again.”
It was unclear what caused the bus to swerve to the right, mounting the kerb before hitting a concrete wall at the end of an emergency lay-by. The accident happened between the east and west exits for the city of Sion.
Belgian transport company Toptours operated the 2002-registered coach and had an “excellent reputation”, said Wathelet.
“It has always respected the rules,” regarding safety, he added.