Cause of Swiss bus tragedy remains a mystery

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

SWISS INVESTIGATORS ruled out driver illness as the cause of the bus crash in which 22 children and six adults died, as Belgium observed a day of national mourning for the dead.

The country came to standstill at 11am yesterday (10am Irish time) for a minute’s silence, after which church bells rang out.

The Belgian air force flew the victims’ remains to the Melsbroek military airport near Brussels and a third plane carried the victims’ belongings. Soldiers carried white coffins to awaiting hearses, which left the airport in convoy.

The cause of the crash remains unknown, although investigators believe the coach clipped the kerb in the tunnel and veered into a lay-by which ended at a right-angled brick wall.

The vehicle, the front of which disintegrated in the force of the crash, was not speeding at the time.

“A dozen interviews with surviving children have been carried out, without any information pointing to a cause or causes of the accident,” said Swiss prosecutor Olivier Elsig, who is leading the investigation.

Saying an autopsy on the driver showed “no sign of excess alcohol”, Mr Elsig said it was also established that the driver had not had a heart attack.

He was doubtful about suspicions, reported by Swiss and Belgian media, that the driver was trying to change a DVD or CD just before the bus slammed head-on into a wall.

“Regarding the theory of inattention due to a DVD being inserted, none of those heard saw the driver doing anything like this,” he said. “Two hypotheses remain: something technical related to a defect in the vehicle or a human cause due to an error or a lack of attention.”

The children, most aged about 12, were returning from a ski trip in the Swiss Alps when the bus crashed. They were from two primary schools: at Heverlee, in the outskirts of Leuven, and Lommel, near the Dutch border. Six of the dead children had Dutch nationality and one had joint British-Belgian nationality.

In addition to the driver, the other victims were teachers, an elderly ski supervisor and a replacement driver.

The minute of silence was observed by pupils, teachers and parents at the two schools. A joint funeral will be held at Heverlee next Thursday for the seven pupils from the Saint Lambertus school.

The silence was observed in schools throughout the country, and by office and factory workers and commuters. The tram, metro and bus systems stopped and television images showed people observing the silence in shopping centres, train stations and outside churches.

Meetings came to a halt and a silence was also observed at public events later in the day. Flags flew at half-mast outside Belgian public buildings and the European institutions.

A further 12 injured children were repatriated yesterday after eight arrived home on Thursday night. Four others remain in a serious condition at a hospital in Lausanne and a clinic in Bern. Two of them remain in an artificial coma.