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Shock after Valais coach crash leaves 28 dead

Helicopters assisted in the tunnel rescue operation

(Keystone)

Belgium and Switzerland are in shock after a coach crash on Tuesday night in Valais, southern Switzerland, left 28 people dead – 22 of them children.

The dead and injured were among a Belgian school group returning home after a ski holiday. It is one of the worst accidents in Switzerland in 30 years.

Twenty-four children were injured. There were 52 people in the coach.

The group comprised two Flemish school parties from Lommel close to the Dutch border, and Heverlee, near to Brussels. They had been staying at a ski resort in Val d’Anniviers, a popular winter holiday destination. The children were around 12 years old.

It has been confirmed that nine children from the travel party were from the Netherlands. Police said seven Dutch children – who were pupils at the Belgian school – were among the fatalities.
 
The bus was travelling from Sierre to Sion through a tunnel on the A9 motorway, when for unknown reasons it veered and slammed head on into the tunnel wall. The front of the bus was badly damaged, preventing people from getting out.

Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo spoke of  "a tragic day for the whole of Belgium”, while the Swiss government has expressed its “great sadness” and has sent its condolences to the Belgian government, the victims and their families, a spokesman said.

 
Authorities were still identifying victims, added Didier Reynders, the Belgian foreign minister. A crisis centre has been set up and an emergency number provided for families. In Valais the victims’ helpline is +41 848 112 117.

Shock

“I have never seen anything like this before. The scale of the accident is difficult to comprehend,” said the Belgian ambassador to Switzerland, Jan Luykx.
 
Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf visited the accident scene during the day, before attending a media conference with di Rupo on Wednesday evening. The country will be offering all its support to the victims and their families, she said.

The head of the Valais cantonal government, Jacques Melly, also spoke of his deep sadness at the accident and sent his condolences to the families of the victims.
 
He thanked the rescuers for their work in extremely difficult conditions. The medical head of rescue operations has already spoken of the shock of rescuers at the scene and that there had never been such a big accident involving so many children.
 
Priority is currently being given to the victims and their families, local officials added. Dutch speakers are being drafted in to help.
 
On Wednesday morning the Swiss parliament held a minute's silence for the victims of the crash as did their colleagues in the Valais local parliament.

European Union commissioner José Manuel Barroso has sent his condolences to Belgium.

Rescue operation

The alarm was raised just after 9.15pm. More than 200 people were involved in the rescue operation at the accident scene, including 15 doctors, 30 police officers and 60 fire officers. It took more than eight hours.
 
The authorities told a news conference that the two drivers on the coach had been killed in the crash.
 
Most of the injured have been taken to four hospitals in the area with three seriously injured transported to the university hospitals in Lausanne and Bern.
 
The cause of the accident is still not yet known, prosecutor Olivier Elsig told reporters on Wednesday morning. He assured the families that he would do everything possible to ensure that the investigation would take place in total transparency.

The vehicle was new, or nearly new, and was equipped with safety belts, he added.

Belgian officials have said that the coach company had an excellent reputation and that the drivers had appeared to have kept to driving and rest regulations.
 

Traffic accidents

Tuesday night’s coach accident is one of the worst in Switzerland in the last 30 years after an accident in Pfäffikon near Zurich in 1982 which claimed 39 victims.

In the past few years:

June 2010: a Canadian couple died in Reckingen, Valais. 28 others were injured, four seriously.

October 2008: an accident on the Italian side of the great St Bernard Pass involving a coach full of Neuchâtel Juventus football fans resulted in two deaths and 26 injuries.

September 2006: Nine people died in a blaze in the Viamala tunnel in canton Graubünden after a bus carrying a local ice hockey team was in collision with a car.

April 2005: 13 people died in an accident on the Great St Bernard Pass near Orsières when a coach crashed off the road into a ravine.

Another grave accident occurred in 2001 in the Gotthard tunnel, after  a truck caught fire after losing control. Eleven people died, mainly as  a result of smoke inhalation.

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swissinfo.ch and agencies

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