National day of mourning for 28 school bus victims
BELGIUM HOLDS a national day of mourning today as the grief-stricken country prepares to receive the remains of the 28 people killed when their coach hit a tunnel wall in Switzerland.
The crash claimed the lives of 22 children from two Belgian schools and six adults as they returned from a ski trip.
Some of the surviving children have told their parents and doctors that the driver was trying to insert a DVD or CD into the player on the bus just before the crash, according to reports in the Swiss and Belgian media.
The reports – by Flemish paper Het Laatste Nieuws and Swiss paper Aargaur Zeitung – could not be verified immediately. Swiss police said these accounts were speculative and that such information could not be confirmed from video recordings of the crash.
However, the Toptours bus company said it would not have been possible for the children to see if the driver was using the DVD-CD player as his cabin was at road level, while passengers sat in an elevated compartment behind him.
An alternative theory – mooted on radio by a Catholic Flemish group that was involved in the ski trip – was that a teacher was trying to put a disc into the player in the moments before the crash.
The driver and a replacement driver both died. Swiss investigators said they were still pursuing three lines of inquiry: technical failure; human error; or driver illness. An autopsy was carried out on the driver’s body yesterday.
Toptours said it had been informed by Swiss authorities that no trace of alcohol had been detected, and that both drivers had rested during the day before the bus left the Val d’Anniviers ski resort.
The families of the victims gathered last night for a memorial service in the Swiss town of Sierre, near the crash site.
Four children remain in a critical condition and there are particular concerns for three of them. Eight other injured children were on their way home last night.
Belgian television channel RTL said the remains of three children were still unidentified yesterday morning and that one child had to be identified from clothing initially.
Grieving parents were taken yesterday morning to a morgue in the town of Sion and to the crash scene. Some of them were clad in black and clutching white flowers as they walked into the tunnel opening.
The remains of the victims are expected to be repatriated today to Belgium on military planes.
Belgian prime minister Elio di Rupo said the country was in one of its darkest moments. “The entire country weeps for its children,” he told parliament.
“All the parents wanted a better world for their children but their world has crumbled.”
As part of the day of mourning, the government called for a national minute’s silence this morning. Church bells will sound the death knell immediately afterwards.
The public transport system will halt to observe the silence, with the drivers of buses, metros and trams cutting their engines at the nearest stop.
The two national Flemish and French broadcasters said they would carry no adverts on their television and radio channels today.
Questions were raised in Switzerland about the right-angled safety recess wall into which the bus crashed. In neighbouring Germany such recesses have been outlawed since 2003 and all tunnels retrofitted with angled walls.
“It’s logical that we will have to examine measures to eliminate the right-hand wall standing at right angles to the flow of traffic,” said Niklaus Zürcher, head of the Swiss Automobile Club.