The cause of a crash of a bus carrying schoolchildren back to Belgium from a ski vacation in Switzerland, killing 28 people and injuring 24 others on board, is unclear, police said.
Twenty-two of the fatalities from yesterday’s accident at about 9 p.m. in a Swiss highway tunnel between Sion and Sierre were 12-year-olds. The beige-yellow bus that crashed an hour into its journey from southwestern Switzerland to Belgium had seat belts and was considered well-maintained. Both drivers were killed and three children remain in critical condition, authorities said.
“It was with great consternation and deep emotion that I found out yesterday evening about this tragic bus accident,” Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said. “I can well understand as a mother of three children how painful it must be to lose a child in this way.”
Swiss prosecutor Olivier Elsig said at a news conference in Sion there was no evidence yet that the bus was speeding, video footage from the scene was being analyzed and authorities were examining whether the bus driver wasn’t well.
The schoolchildren returning from a ski break in the Val d’Anniviers area died when their bus slammed into the A9 tunnel wall, Valais cantonal police said. All six adults on board perished.
It’s “an absolutely tragic day for our country,” Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo said. “When you lose an adult, it’s tragic; when you lose a child there are no words.”
The bus was headed back to Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flanders region carrying two classes from the Sint-Lambertus school in Heverlee and ’t Stekske school in Lommel, according to the Belgian newspaper Het Belang van Limburg. They were on holiday in Saint-Luc, a resort between Crans-Montana and Zermatt, the Lommel school said.
Nine Dutch children were in the bus accident, Aad Meijer, spokesman for the Dutch Foreign Ministry, said in a phone interview.
The Valais crash comes 13 years after a truck blaze killed 39 people in the 12-kilometer (7-mile) Mont Blanc road tunnel connecting Chamonix, France, and Courmayeur, Italy, trapping victims and vehicles under Western Europe’s highest mountain. Eleven were killed after a fire broke out in Switzerland’s 17-kilometer Gotthard tunnel in 2001 following the collision of two trucks.
None ‘Even Crying’
The Belgian bus drivers arrived in Switzerland on March 12, and the vehicle had a valid safety certificate, Environment, Energy and Mobility Minister Melchior Wathelet said, according to the Belga news agency.
“There isn’t, at first sight, any issue with working or resting hours” for the drivers, Wathelet’s office said in a statement quoted by Belga. “They had been on their way for about an hour when the accident occurred.”
Among the stunned and injured survivors, “none of the children were even crying any more,” rescue chief Claude Peter told the Swiss newspaper Le Matin. “It’s the injuries that were the most impressive” as some children’s legs “were in a terrible state.”
The bus owner, Toptours of Aarschot, Belgium, “has an excellent reputation” and complied with all conditions to be a tour operator, Wathelet was quoted as saying by Belga. Touring Club Suisse spokesman David Venetz told Swiss TV that the tunnel met all safety standards.
The children’s families, most still uncertain about their fate, were taken to the Melsbroek air base near Brussels and flown to Switzerland by military aircraft, Belgian papers said. King Albert II and Queen Paola met them at the base.
“The government is doing everything to properly inform the members of the victims’ families with the utmost dignity,” Di Rupo said in a statement. The prime minister traveled to Switzerland today and attended the news conference.
While those killed were being identified, some 15 doctors were tending to the injured, aided by 12 ambulances, eight helicopters, 30 police officers and 60 firefighters.
The accident is “incomprehensible,” Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. Only the bus was involved, “no other vehicles,” he said.
“It’s a very tragic accident,” Lommel local government official Geert Jansen told Het Belang. Swiss police opened a help line for relatives at +41 848 112 117.