Belgium prepares to fly home bus crash victims

Local people paid homage to the victims of the coach crash in Sierre on Wednesday night Keystone

Belgian military planes are on standby to repatriate the bodies of 22 children and six adults killed in a school bus crash in a tunnel in southern Switzerland.

This content was published on March 15, 2012 - 09:28
swissinfo.ch and agencies

Authorities are still trying to determine what happened after a coach returning schoolchildren from a ski trip to St Luc in canton Valais crashed into a tunnel wall on Tuesday night. Three of the 24 children injured are still in a critical condition.

The bus slammed head on into a concrete wall inside a tunnel near Sierre but early indications have ruled out speeding, the investigating prosecutor told a media conference in nearby Sion on Wednesday evening.
 
Prosecutor Olivier Elsig said video cameras from the tunnel captured the accident. He told reporters the children on the bus were wearing seat belts and no other vehicle was involved.
 
Elsig said investigators were looking at three possible causes for the crash – a technical problem with the bus, a health problem with the driver, or human error.
 
He said the seatbelts wouldn't have helped much due to the severity of the crash. Experts will conduct an autopsy on the driver, he added.

The tunnel, which was built in 1999, was given a clean bill of health in 2008 following a federal study of all 220 Swiss road tunnels.

But on Thursday several newspapers questioned the safety of the 2.5-kilometre tunnel and the emergency stop space inside. The coach rammed into the concrete wall at the end of this lay-by.

“Should the speed be lowered for heavy vehicles or the design of the emergency lay-bys be modified?” asked the French-language Le Temps daily. The speed limit was 100 km/h inside the tunnel.

Official sympathy

Also speaking at the media conference, Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf and Belgian Prime minister Elio di Rupo, expressed their sorrow and sympathy for the families of those killed and the 24 children injured in the crash.
 
“Switzerland will do everything it can to support the families,” Widmer-Schlumpf said sitting next to the Belgian leader. She commended the work of the rescue services.
 
Di Rupo spoke of the dramatic scale of the accident and the high number of child fatalities. “When one loses a child there are no words,” he said, pledging to do everything to ease the pain of the bereaved.
 
Belgium declared a day of mourning.
 
The Belgian health ministry said on Wednesday evening that all the injured children had now been identified: seven come from Lommel, near the Dutch border, and 17 come from Heverlee, near Brussels.
 
The group comprised two Flemish school parties. They had been staying in the village of St Luc in Val d’Anniviers, a skiing destination popular among Belgians.

Two C-130 Hercules transport planes belonging to the Belgian army are waiting to fly home the bodies of the dead, Defence Minister Pieter De Crem said on his return from a visit to the crash site.

Families

Relatives of some of the 28 people killed, who flew to Switzerland on Wednesday afternoon, were taken to a morgue in Sion to identify the bodies ahead of their repatriation, police said on Thursday.

Although some family members had received phone calls from their injured children before leaving Belgium, the agonising wait for news continued for other parents into Wednesday evening.

Tragic scenes were played out at the two Belgian schools throughout the day. Schoolmates and family members comforted each other while waiting for news.

Family and friends had been getting updates throughout the week from the holidaying children in Switzerland through a blog which described their happy experiences in St Luc.

A crisis centre has been set up and an emergency number provided for families. In Valais the victims’ helpline is +41 848 112 117. 

A Catholic chapel in Sierre was opened to allow the public to pay their respects to the victims, and a memorial mass was planned for Thursday evening at the town's Holy Cross church.

Two other buses, carrying students from schools in the Belgian towns of Beersel and Haasrode, arrived safely back in Belgium on Tuesday, apparently without having seen the accident.  

“Traumatised”

Dr Jean-Pierre Deslarzes, medical director of the cantonal rescue service OCVS, said rescuers were traumatised because so many of the victims were children.

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.

Witnesses who stopped to help as well as those who drove by were also deeply shocked by the desperate situation in the tunnel and their inability to assist the trapped children, they told Swiss television.

Tuesday’s Tunnel de Geronde crash is one of the worst accidents in Switzerland in 30 years. The previous worst accident in a Swiss highway tunnel happened in 2001, when two trucks collided in the Gotthard tunnel, killing 11 people.

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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