Six teenagers were killed and three others injured when their school bus was hit by a trailer lorry carrying rubble from a construction site in the French town of Rochefort at 7.15 am on Thursday.
It appears that the side panel holding the lorry’s cargo came unfastened, or was inadvertently left open. “The siding was open at a 90-degree angle when the lorry passed the bus. It cut the bus open around the height of the windows,” Jérôme Servolle of the Unsa police union told BFM TV. “You can imagine the damage, the carnage.”
The lorry and bus drivers were taken into custody for questioning, and for drug and alcohol tests. They can be held for up to 48 hours. Police are attempting to determine whether human error was responsible for the incident.
The bus was driving along the quay of the western port town, south of La Rochelle, in the Charente-Maritime department. The 15 students were from three different schools and were travelling from the Ile d'Oleron to Surgères. Because the incident occurred in the centre of town, emergency services arrived quickly.
“They took the bus together every morning,” said Ségolène Royal, the environment minister, who is also responsible for transportation and is a former president of the region. “This is a terrible tragedy. A chapel is being prepared, and there will be long-term psychological help for the families.”
Education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem also travelled to the scene. “This is a huge shock for the entire educational community,” she said. Rochefort has a population of 25,000.
"The safety of school bus transportation has improved a great deal in France, " said Dominique Bussereau, the local parliamentary deputy. "A lorry that passes a bus at the instant when a part comes loose – there was one chance in a million that an accident like this would happen. Unfortunately it happened here this morning."
But Alain Vidalies, the junior minister for transportation, said "It's not at all normal for a lorry of this type, carrying rubble, to lose its trailer and kill children. That's the question we're facing."
President Francois Hollande expressed his "intense emotion" in a statement issued by the Élysée. "The President of the Republic addresses his sincere condolences to those close to the victims and assures them of the solidarity of the entire nation," it said. Mr Hollande promised that all facts regarding the accident will come to light.
"Grief and compassion after the school bus accident that claimed the lives of six college students at Rochefort," tweeted prime minister Manuel Valls.
Two adolescents aged 12 and 15 were killed in a school bus accident at Montbenoît in the eastern Doubs region on Wednesday. Seven people were injured. The bus, carrying 32 children, It slid off the road in two centimetres of snow and fell on to its side.
Forty-three people died when a coach carrying old age pensioners on an outing collided with a lorry near Bordeaux last October 23rd.