28 dead 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, although prosecutors have said that the driver was not speeding.
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 screams of children were the first thing we heard,” he said, telling journalists that the rescuers were “stunned for a moment” by the cries before their instincts kicked in and they began emergency operations.
US President Barack Obama offered his deepest condolences to Switzerland and Belgium, and said “the United States stands ready to provide whatever assistance may be helpful”.
“The president sends his deepest condolences to the victims and their families of last night’s bus accident in Switzerland. The loss of so many young lives is especially heartbreaking,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.
“When we lose an adult it’s dramatic, when we lose a child there are no words… because the pain is so great that there is nothing to relieve the pain,” Belgian Prime Minister Elio 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”.
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 the medical director of Valais canton Jean-Pierre Deslarzes.
Most of the 14 who are at a Sion hospital “had serious fractures, some in both legs, and most have been operated on”, said Michel Callens, a doctor.
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.
He added that investigators had three hypotheses for the cause of the accident — a technical problem linked to the coach, a driver who may have been feeling ill or simply a human error.
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.
As well as Belgians, the children included 10 Dutch and one Pole, authorities said.
Police in the southern Valais canton told reporters 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.
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.
Local police commander Christian Varone said at a press conference in the town of Sion that 24 other people were injured in the crash on Tuesday night, 22 of whom had been identified.
Identification of the fatalities was ongoing.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Belgian 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.”
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.