Swiss bus crash kills 28, including 22 children
SIERRE, Switzerland (AP) — A tour bus carrying schoolchildren home from a class trip slammed head-on into a tunnel wall in the Swiss Alps, killing 22 Belgian students and six adults and instantly changing a joyous skiing vacation into a tragedy spanning several European nations.
As authorities tried Wednesday to piece together what happened, parents, classmates and rescue workers struggled to grasp the awful turn of events. Only days earlier, the children had updated a lively blog about the highlights of their adventure: ravioli and meatball dinners, cable-car rides and sing-a-longs.
Police said the bus was not speeding and everyone aboard had been wearing seat belts when it crashed late Tuesday inside the 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) Tunnel de Geronde on a highway near the southern town of Sierre, a gateway to the Val d'Anniviers tourist region. No other vehicles were involved.
Belgian authorities flew anxious parents and relatives to the site and called for a day of mourning. The Swiss parliament held a minute of silence for the victims.
Investigators were still trying to determine how a modern bus, a rested driver and a seemingly safe tunnel could produce one of the deadliest highway crashes in Swiss history.
Olivier Elsig, prosecutor for the Swiss state of Valais, said officials were looking at three possible causes — a technical problem with the bus, a health problem with the driver or human error. He said an autopsy would be performed on the driver.
"We will examine everything to find out what happened," Elsig said.
Dr. Jean-Pierre Deslarzes, medical director of the local Swiss rescue service OCVS, said first-responders were traumatized because so many of the victims were children.
"We found an apocalyptic situation when we arrived," said Christian Varone, police commander for Valais.
Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf also flew to Sion to pay her respects to the victims, survivors and rescue officials. A crisis center was set up for families of the dead.
Police said 21 of the dead were Belgian and seven were Dutch. Twenty-four other children were hurt.
The crash occurred in a stretch of tunnel where the speed limit was 100 kph (62 mph). The bus veered, hit a curb, then rammed into a concrete wall in an emergency stop space, police said.
The bus was operated by the Top Tours company, based in Aarschot, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Brussels. A woman who answered the phone at the company's offices declined to comment, but Belgian Transport Minister Melchior Wathelet said Top Tours has a good safety record.
The drivers had arrived the night before and rested on the day of the departure. And the bus was relatively new, he said.
The students had spent the last few days at a ski camp and were on their way back to the Belgian provinces of Brabant, Flanders and Limbourg. While they were there, students at one school kept a blog that brimmed with enthusiasm.
"Today was totally the best," one girl wrote. "The adventurous walk was tiring but mega-cool. We won first prize for cleanest room. Tomorrow it's going to be colder. Byyyeeee!"
One teacher posted a note after five days to reassure parents back home. "For now we do not see much homesickness," the teacher wrote. "But from the reactions of the children we gather that they miss you a little bit."
The bus was carrying students from two towns — Lommel, east of Antwerp, and Heverlee, near Leuven. Two other buses, carrying students from schools in the Belgian towns of Beersel and Haasrode, arrived safely back in Belgium, apparently without seeing the wreck.
The tunnel where the crash occurred opened in 1999, and the German automobile club ADAC gave it the second-best of six ranking levels in 2005. Several individual aspects won top ranking, but the emergency management system was deemed "inadequate," the second-lowest level.
The previous worst accident in a Swiss highway tunnel happened in 2001, when two trucks collided in the Gotthard tunnel, killing 11 people.
One of Europe's most tragic tunnel accidents happened in March 1999, when 39 people were killed after a truck caught fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy. The blaze burned for two days while firefighters tried to reach victims and vehicles.
At midday Wednesday, the blog of the Sint Lambertusschool in Heverlee was still online, showing kids smiling and frolicking amid the snow.
"Things are super here in Saint-Luc. The skiing, the weather, the food," one boy posted Saturday. "Tomorrow I play in the Muppet Show. ... I'm now reading the book 'Why Dogs Have Wet Noses.' Very interesting! I miss you all."
Melvin reported from Brussels. Frank Jordans in Geneva, Raf Casert in Heverlee, Belgium, and Robert Wielaard in Brussels contributed to this report.