SION, Switzerland – Belgian military planes were on standby Thursday, March 15, to fly home the bodies of 22 children and six adults killed in a school bus crash in a Swiss Alpine tunnel.
As parents of the children flew to Switzerland Wednesday, March 14, to visit the site where a bus carrying children from two Belgian schools crashed, Belgium’s Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said he could find no words of comfort for devastated relatives.
“When we lose an adult it’s dramatic, when we lose a child there are no words… because the pain is so great that there is nothing to relieve the pain,” Di Rupo told a press conference in Sion, Switzerland, near the site of the disaster.
Forty six children and four teachers from two Belgian schools were returning to Belgium from a skiing holiday late Tuesday when their coach slammed into a concrete wall in a motorway tunnel near the town of Sierre in the Swiss Alps.
The four teachers, two bus drivers and 22 of the children were killed in the impact that was so massive the entire front of the vehicle caved in like cardboard. The remaining 24 passengers, all children, were injured, some severely, and were being treated in four local hospitals.
Two C-130 Hercules transport planes belonging to the Belgian army were on standby to bring back the bodies of the dead, Defense Minister Pieter De Crem announced late Wednesday on his return from a visit to the crash site.
“I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. But this was worse than anything you can imagine,” said Alain Rittiner, in charge of rescue operations who arrived at the scene some 20 minutes after the crash.
“The screams of children were the first thing we heard,” he said, saying rescuers were “stunned” by the cries before their instincts kicked in and they began emergency operations.
The cause of the the crash was not immediately known, although prosecutors have said that the driver was not speeding.
The coach had only just reached the motorway after a short descent along winding roads from the mountain ski resort, close to the Italian border.
Marianne Van Malderen, a Belgian motorist who arrived at the scene shortly after the crash, described children pinned under their seats or thrown towards the front of the coach.
“We did what we could to get out those who were unhurt,” but “it wasn’t possible to climb into the coach because its windows were so high up”, she said.
US President Barack Obama offered his deepest condolences to Switzerland and Belgium, and said “the United States stands ready to provide whatever assistance may be helpful”.
The 24 children injured in the crash had been identified, the Belgian health ministry said late Wednesday. Spokesman Jan Eyckmans told Belga news agency that seven were from Lommel primary school in northeast Belgium and 17 from Heverlee primary school in the centre of the country.
Belgium’s cabinet was to meet Thursday to examine the repatriation of the injured people.
Belgium announced a day of national mourning, while the Swiss parliament observed a minute’s silence for the victims.
On his return from Switzerland, Prime Minister Di Rupo said his government would consider the “most appropriate” manner to conduct memorials over the coming days.
Of the injured children, three were in a very serious condition, according to the medical director of Valais canton Jean-Pierre Deslarzes.
A Swiss prosecutor said Wednesday the coach was not believed to have been speeding at the time.
“The speed of the vehicle is being determined. We think the vehicle was not driving too fast,” Olivier Elsig told a press conference in the town of Sion, close to the scene of Tuesday night’s accident.
He added that investigators had three hypotheses for the cause of the accident — a technical problem linked to the coach, a driver who may have been feeling ill or simply a human error.
The children were wearing seat belts, but “the impact of the accident was so great” that some were thrown clear along with the seats, he added.
Those hurt, three of whom were said to be in a coma, were taken by ambulance and helicopter to four hospitals after fire crews had worked for hours to cut them free from the coach’s twisted wreckage.
As well as Belgians, the children included 10 Dutch and one Pole, authorities said.
Police in the southern Valais canton told reporters that the tragedy was “unprecedented” and that even seasoned rescuers had been traumatised.
Surgeon Jean-Pierre Dellars said in one of the hospitals: “All the rescuers were shocked by what they have experienced.”
The injuries were so bad that the death toll could well rise, he added.
The coach, in a convoy of three hired by Catholic education authorities in Belgium’s Flanders region, carried pupils from primary schools in Lommel, near the Dutch border, and Heverlee, in the suburbs of Leuven.
Belgian authorities said they were doing everything they could to ensure that the families of the victims were kept informed and treated with dignity, the prime minister’s office said.
Belgian transport company Toptours operated the 2002-registered coach and had an “excellent reputation”, said Wathelet.
“It has always respected the rules,” regarding safety, he added. – Agence France-Presse