Pupils' drawings of hearts, rainbows and broken flowers

Thu, Mar 15, 2012, 00:00

THE MOOD was grim outside St Lambertus primary school, one of two Belgian schools to lose pupils in the crash.

Bunches of flowers lay on the ground, a grey candle flickered by the wall and pupils’ drawings draped from the gate depicted love hearts, rainbows, broken flowers and hospital scenes.

Seven children were still unaccounted for. One child was confirmed dead, as were a teacher and an elderly ski supervisor. Another 16 children survived, but many of them were injured.

On a sunny spring day, locals at Heverlee in the outskirts of Leuven spoke of distress and terror. Ten couples were said to have left by car overnight for Switzerland, not knowing whether their children were alive.

“The first emotion is not believing it, particularly when you are waking up and they are saying ‘there is an incident’ and you are saying ‘what’s happening here’?” said parish priest Fr Dirk de Gend.

“This school is a very local school, it is a parish school and so everybody knows everybody else. It’s a very small community and therefore it’s harder to live this experience . . . Everybody is living in the neighbourhood.”

Past pupil Katelan Humblet, wiping tears from her eyes, said St Lambertus was different from bigger schools. “It’s a family, it’s a small family,” she said.

The school opened as usual yesterday, closing early for the regular Wednesday half-day. Teachers spent class-time explaining to children, some of whom had brothers and sisters caught up in the crash, what had happened.

The teacher who died, known simply as “Mr Frank”, was the only man on the teaching staff. About 40, he was hugely popular with pupils and two of his own three children attend the school.

A note to his son, written by another teacher, was tacked to the school gate. “Hannes, we are thinking about you and your family. We will never forget your Dad,” it said.

Carrying her three-month-old son in a car-seat, local woman Veronique Pujunjer said she went to the school because she wanted to express solidarity even though she did not know anyone touched by the crash. “It’s awful. I’m here for moral support.”

Mieke Van Hecke, chief of the organisation of Catholic Flemish schools, said she woke very early yesterday to hear an alarming message on her phone.

“I am a mother, I am a grandmother,” she said. “I cannot imagine how those parents must have felt through the night, hearing messages and not knowing whether their children were dead or still alive.”

From a total of 200 pupils, 24 children in their final school year went on the ski holiday. At the outset of the trip, they were considered by their fellow pupils to the lucky ones.

Fr de Gend spent yesterday trying to comfort the families.

“You cannot say a lot because you know the children yourself, you know the teacher yourself and then you can only cry and be together. At that moment there is no possibility to say something because emotions are too high.”