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Belgium mourns as bodies flown home

Belgians pause for minute's silence at Brussels' main train station on Friday Reuters

Belgian military aircraft on Friday brought home the bodies of 22 children and six adults killed in a bus crash in Switzerland.

This content was published on March 16, 2012 - 18:09
swissinfo.ch and agencies

White coffins were loaded into two Hercules transport aircraft near the Swiss town of Sion and landed at a military airport near Brussels from where undertakers collected them after a short ceremony. A third plane returned with their belongings.

The repatriations occurred as Belgium and the Netherlands observed a minute's silence during a national day of mourning on Friday. Most of the victims are Belgian and around 12 years old. Seven are Dutch.

Friday saw a minute’s silence held at 11am in both Belgium and the Netherlands and flags were flown at half-mast. Flags were also lowered in Valais and on the parliamentary building in the Swiss capital, Bern.

In factories, offices and schools, Belgians stood silent. Buses, trams and some trains also stopped for passengers to pay their respects to the victims, most of them 11- and 12-year-olds returning from a school skiing trip.

"The grief is so intense, but this helps," said one man from the town of Lommel - home to 17 of those killed - referring to acts of rememberance across Belgium.

Repatriation

Medical authorities confirmed that 12 more children injured in the accident were repatriated home by special medical transport flights on Friday.

A total 24 children were injured and 22 were killed when the bus they were travelling home in crashed into a tunnel wall. Six adults including the two bus drivers were also killed.

Of the survivors, six children with minor injuries returned to Belgium on Thursday.

Three children are still being treated at a hospital in Lausanne and one is at the clinic in the capital Bern.

Of those, one child woke from a coma on Friday and was able to communicate. But two others remain in medically induced comas with serious brain injuries.

Investigation

Swiss police continued to investigate how the coach, carrying 52 passengers, crashed into a tunnel wall on Tuesday night.

The tourist bus carrying the 46 children and four teachers from two Belgian schools and two Belgian drivers smashed head-on into a concrete wall at the end of an emergency layby in the 2.5-kilometre two-lane tunnel.


The accident occurred around 9.15pm, less than an hour after the group had left to return home from a ski vacation in the Swiss resort of St Luc in the Val d’Anniviers region.

Prosecutor Olivier Elsig on Friday doused media speculation that the crash had been caused by the driver trying to manipulate a DVD for the children to watch. He said none of the children who had so far been interviewed had seen the driver handle a DVD. 

 
Elsig also told reporters that initial examination of video footage taken from inside the tunnel ruled out the theory of the bus having scraped the left side of the tunnel before verring into the layby on the right side where it crashed.

The prosecutor confirmed the driver had not been affected by alcohol at the time of the crash. Neither did the driver have a pre-existing medical condition that would support the theory of him being afflicted by a health problem and resulting in the crash.

Investigators are now concentrating on two possible senarios as the cause of the crash, Elsig said - either a technical problem with the bus or human error or inattention.

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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