Joyful blogs, then crash kills 22 children

FOR a group of excited youngsters on the cusp of teenagehood, it was a trip of a lifetime, with skiing, movies and dressing-up parties. “It is super here and the sun shines the whole day,” one youngster wrote home to their parents.

But two Belgian villages were in mourning yesterday, after a dream school excursion ended in a catastrophic coach crash that claimed the lives of 22 children and six adults.

The survivors were trapped inside the wrecked vehicle, which veered off the road in the Swiss canton of Valais, and rammed into a concrete wall.

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Police described the scene as akin to that in a war zone, while traumatised rescuers said some of the victims, aged 11 and 12, would be identified through DNA testing, such was the brute force of the coach’s impact.

Despite reports suggesting the coach had been travelling “considerably faster” than the 63mph speed limit as it careered into the underpass near Sierre, by the Italian border, at about 9:15pm on Tuesday, Swiss prosecutor Olivier Elsig said last night the driver was not speeding, and the children were wearing seatbelts.

No other vehicle was involved, and officials are now exploring theories that the driver became unwell or made a mistake, or that there was a mechanical problem.

The tragedy, which officials said was the worst road traffic accident in Switzerland’s history, left 24 children injured among the party of 52, which was returning from a skiing holiday in Val d’Anniviers to Sintw Lambertus School in Heverlee and Stekske School in Lommel, both in the Flemish region of Belgium.

Last night, 14 children were still in hospital, three of them critically injured.

The police chief in Valais, Christian Varone, said rescuers were greeted by what he called “a scene like a war”, adding: “We have had a number of serious accidents in Valais but nothing like this, with so many young victims.”

Hundreds of rescuers worked through the night, while 12 ambulances and eight helicopters took the injured to hospital.

Some of the pupils gave accounts of their trip in a series of blogs organised by the schools. One child wrote: “Dear mama and papa. I like it here a lot, but I miss you. Love you. Kisses.”

A visibly moved Elio Di Rupo, the Belgian prime minister, arrived at the site of the crash yesterday afternoon. It is understood his country will hold a national day of mourning in the wake of the tragedy. “It is a black day for all of Belgium,” he said.

Distraught parents gathered at the schools yesterday before travelling to Switzerland by military plane. Peter Vanvelthoven, the mayor of Lommel, said the scale of the tragedy meant it was unclear who had died, but the community was doing all it could to support families.

“It is an incredible blow,” he said. “There were 22 children from one of our schools on this bus, along with two teachers. We don’t yet know how many of them were victims. We have set up a crisis centre for pupils. Parents and other family of those involved are devastated.”

The coach belonged to Toptours, a firm with an “excellent reputation”, according to Belgian transport minister Melchior Wathelet.

He added: “The drivers had arrived [in Switzerland] the night before and rested on the day before the departure. It seems the rules regarding driving and rest time were respected.”