'You can only cry and be together' says priest from Flanders village


BELGIUM REACTED with shock and sorrow to the deaths of 22 schoolchildren and six adults after the coach they were travelling in rammed head-on into the wall of a Swiss tunnel as they returned home from a ski trip.

With as many as 16 of the children still unidentified last night and another 24 people in hospital, many parents flown by military aircraft to Switzerland did not know whether their children survived the crash.

King Albert II spoke to the families as they prepared to fly to Switzerland from Melsbroek military airport yesterday. Belgium plans to hold a national day of mourning. The trip was organised by two primary schools in Heverlee and Lommel in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region.

In Heverlee, about 30kms from Brussels, local people brought flowers to the Saint Lambertus school, which has about 200 pupils.

Past-pupil Katelan Humblet said the school’s size meant those who attended it were part of a small family. Parish priest Fr Dirk de Gend said: “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.”

Three of the injured children were reported last night to be in a coma. The scene in the aftermath of the crash was described by witnesses as being like a war-zone or something from a horror movie.

Investigators believe the coach was not speeding when it smashed into the wall but they are still trying to piece together how the crash happened. With no other vehicle involved, they are working on three possible explanations: technical fault, driver illness or human error.

There were two drivers on board. They arrived in Switzerland on March 12th and the bus had a valid safety certificate, the Belgian government said. No issues were reported in relation to the working hours of the drivers, both of whom died in the crash.

“We are here to understand better, there is consternation,” Belgian prime minister Elio di Rupo told a press conference in the Swiss town of Sion, which is near the crash scene.

“When a drama like this happens, when we lose a child or have a child suffering in hospital, there are no words. It is important to console the families,” he added.

The children – most of them aged about 12 – were mainly Belgian but seven of them were Dutch.

The Swiss authorities were alerted to the crash by closed circuit television. About 200 police, firefighters, doctors and medics worked through the night at the scene, while 12 ambulances and eight helicopters took the injured to hospitals in the region.