First victims of Swiss bus crash return home

Grieving parents laid flowers at the site of the crash near Sierre Keystone/Olivier Maire

The first groups of young children who survived a deadly school bus crash in southern Switzerland have started to return home to Belgium.

This content was published on March 16, 2012 - 07:56
swissinfo.ch and agencies

Meanwhile, flights carrying the bodies of the 28 victims of the crash started on Friday morning, canton Valais police said.

The accident near Sierre, canton Valais, killed 22 children and six adults travelling home after a ski holiday. Twenty-four children were hospitalised.

Some of the families of the victims flew back home to Belgium out of the Geneva airport on Thursday night.

Separately, a plane carrying eight of the less badly injured 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.

The flights carrying those who died in the crash left at 7.30am at Sion airport, a police statement said on Friday. Attending were the president and deputy president of the Valais cantonal government.

A C-130 Hercules transport plane belonging to the Belgian army arrived at Sion airport on Thursday evening to fly home the first of the bodies, all of which have been formally identified. 

Relatives of some of the 28 people killed were driven from a hotel in Sion to a nearby morgue to identify the bodies ahead of their repatriation, police said on Thursday.

"Where possible, the bodies will be shown to the families," police spokesman Jean-Marie Bornet told The Associated Press.

"In some cases this is not possible because the bodies are too badly injured."

Throughout the day family members visited the site of the crash inside the Tunnel de Geronde near Sierre, which was closed to the public.

Possible cause?

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.

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.

The investigating prosecutor told a media conference in Sion on Wednesday evening that early indications ruled out speeding.

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. An autopsy on the driver showed that he was not affected by alcohol.

Lay-by

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 tunnel and the emergency stop space inside.

“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.

Federal Roads Authority spokesman Antonello Laveglia told AFP news agency the emergency lay-by respected current safety standards, but “in view of what happened it cannot be excluded that something will be re-discussed or changed”.

Mourning

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 Friday a day of national mourning. A minute’s silence will be observed across the country at 11am.

The Belgian health ministry said on Wednesday evening that all the injured children had been identified: seven come from Lommel, near the Dutch border, with two in a critical condition in hospital, and 17 come from Heverlee, near Brussels.

Dutch authorities confirmed on Thursday that six of the deceased children were Dutch. Four others were hospitalised, two of whom remained in a serious condition.

Shock

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.  

 
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.

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

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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