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Day of mourning held for coach crash victims

People gather during a mass in front of Saint Joseph Church in Lommel, Belgium Keystone

Belgium and the Netherlands are holding an official day of mourning on Friday for the victims of the school bus crash in southern Switzerland.

This content was published on March 16, 2012 - 11:14
swissinfo.ch and agencies

Meanwhile, the repatriation of the bodies of the crash victims started on Friday morning, canton Valais police said. Some survivors have already flown home.

The accident, near Sierre, canton Valais, killed 22 children and six adults from the Flemish part of Belgium travelling home after a ski holiday on Tuesday evening. Twenty-four children were hospitalised.

The cause of the crash, in which the bus hit the wall of a tunnel, is still not known.

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 countries and flags were flown at half mast. Flags were also lowered in Valais and on the parliamentary building in the Swiss capital, Bern.

On Thursday evening 2,500 people took part in a memorial service in the Belgian town of Lommel, near the Dutch border. Seventeen of those who died came from the primary school there – 15 children and two adults. A message of condolence from Pope Benedict XVI was read out. Candles were lit outside the school afterwards.

There was also an ecumenical church service in Sierre, which was attended by members of the Valais cantonal governmental as well as the Belgian and Dutch ambassadors. During the service candles were brought in by 22 children and six adults  - representing the victims – and lit at the altar.

Repatriation

Relatives of those killed arrived in Switzerland on Thursday to identify the bodies. They visited the crash site inside the Tunnel de Geronde near Sierre, laying flowers. By the evening all of the 28 dead had been identified, officials announced.

Belgium began flying home some of its dead in military planes on Friday morning. The flights started at 7.30am at Sion airport, a police statement said on Friday. Attending were the president and deputy president of the Valais cantonal government.

  

Some of the families of the victims flew back home to Belgium from Geneva airport on Thursday night.
 
A plane carrying eight children who had been released from hospital and their relatives also returned to Belgium.
 
The remaining children will take a special medical flight, according to the Belgian authorities. However, several children are still in a critical condition in Swiss hospitals and cannot be moved.

Cause unknown

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.

Two other buses, carrying students from schools in the Belgian towns of Beersel and Haasrode, arrived back safely in Belgium on Tuesday, apparently without having seen the accident.  
 
The authorities are still trying to piece together how a modern bus with two rested drivers and a tunnel considered safe could result in one of the deadliest highway crashes in Swiss history.

Investigators are looking at three possible causes for the crash – a technical problem with the bus, a health problem with the driver, or human error.

Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who has expressed Switzerland’s condolences, has said that the country will do everything it can to support the families.

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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