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Agonising wait for parents after Swiss crash tragedy

Faces drawn and carrying overnight bags, distraught parents rushed to a Belgian primary school at dawn, anxious to know if their children were among the 28 dead in a Swiss coach crash.

But hours later as they arrived in Switzerland most were still in the dark over the fate of their children.

They had flown to Geneva aboard a government plane, after briefly meeting King Albert II, Queen Paola and Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, as news of the horrific crash in an Alpine tunnel plunged Belgium into mourning.

“The uncertainty’s terrible,” said Catholic Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard after meeting agonised families in Heverlee’s Sint-Lambertus school on the outskirts of Leuven.

“It’s almost as bad as bad news. Families are saying ‘I hope my child’s on the right side.'”

As Heverlee tried to absorb the full horror of the overnight tragedy, the parish priest said of the fretting relatives: “They’re sitting there, inside, without knowing.”

“Parents who know their child is alive are relieved, but for the others it’s terrible,” Dirk De Gendt added.

After being informed of the crash by phone, parents of the 11- and 12-year-olds began arriving at the school at 7:00 am.

Some returned home to fetch their things before heading to a military airport for the flight to Switzerland.

Twenty-four pupils from the tiny Catholic school along with their teacher and a ski instructor, were aboard the coach when it swerved and smashed at high speed into a concrete wall in the tunnel with 52 people aboard.

The others came from another school in the north-eastern town of Lommel near the Dutch border.

All six adults on the coach — the two drivers and two with each school party — were killed.

The Sint-Lambertus teacher was “a very dynamic” man and his death caused “great sorrow”, said a member of the school board. A child’s painting dedicated to him hung with others near the gates, marked “for Franck.”

Of the 24 pupils from the school, “16 suffered different injuries, some broken arms or legs, but they are alive,” said De Gendt.

But the school had “no news” of the remaining eight, added the priest, who knew the children well as he had been preparing them to take communion.

The mayor of Leuven, Louis Tobback, meanwhile complained that the Swiss authorities had been slow to inform the families of the tragedy.

“The police chief was told at 5:45 am (0445 GMT) and me at 6:15 am,” Tobback told reporters. “I’m astonished it took nine hours for us to know what was going on.”

In the Lommel school, fatalities were expected to be higher as the students had been sitting at the mangled front of the bus.

TV images showed tearful parents running into the Lommel school building in the morning in hope of news as strained family and friends huddled outside to wait.

Of the 22 children from the Stekske school, 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.

As families prepared to board the plane to Switzerland, many remained in the dark over the fate of their children.

“We still don’t know, we have no names, I don’t know,” said the godmother of one of the 46 children aboard the Belgian coach when the accident occurred.

The children were returning from a skiing holiday organised by the Flemish Catholic school system.

Archbishop Leonard said the parents had “felt something that resembled the cry of Christ on the cross ‘My God, why did you abandon me?'”

“Belgium awoke in mourning,” the RTL-TV1 network said as it opened its noon news-cast.