39 dead in Italy as bus plunges off viaduct

Thirty-nine people were killed and around 10 injured when a bus plunged off a viaduct in southern Italy in what Prime Minister Enrico Letta described yesterday as a huge tragedy.

Initial reports suggested that the coach was travelling at speed and had hit four or five cars before crashing over the roadside barriers on a stretch of road near Monteforte Irpino, east of Naples, on Sunday night. There were around 50 people on board, including many children.

It was one of the worst road accidents in Italy’s history, and follows a high- speed train crash in the Spanish pilgrimage town of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday which killed 79 people.

Letta, on an official visit to Athens, cancelled a private visit to the historic Acropolis before meetings with his Greek counterpart, Antonis Samaras.

“It is a very sad day for Italy, what happened last night. There are no words for it,” he told reporters. “It is a huge tragedy.”

A statement from motorway operator Autostrade per l’Italia said the coach appeared to have been travelling fast in the vicinity of slower-moving traffic, even though the lower speed had been clearly indicated.

“You would think that the barriers on the viaducts and bridges should prevent this type of accident but evidently it seems the impact was so strong that even the barrier gave way,” said Alessio Barbarulo, head of the local fire brigade division that coordinated the rescue effort.

The Ansa news agency said the manslaughter probe would look into the possible role of the driver, who was killed in the crash, as well as the state of the coach and the crash barrier on the highway.

Ansa said the coach driver’s body would be examined for the possible presence of alcohol or drugs while traffic police have seized the vehicle documents from the coach operator Mondotravel.

As rescue services worked, crushed wreckage from the coach lay on its side, while bodies covered in white sheets were lined up on the road before being taken away by ambulances.

Thirty-six people were killed immediately and another three died later in hospital, police said.

Infrastructure Minister Maurizio Lupi said it was too early to say what may have caused the accident but that there was no indication of technical problems with the bus, which had passed its annual inspection in March.

An official from the prosecutor’s office in nearby Avellino said investigations would look at the possibility of manslaughter or causing an accident.

All of the victims appear to have been Italians returning from an excursion to the town of Telese Terme, known for its hot sulphurous springs and a nearby lake popular as a fishing spot. Local media said the stretch of road where the bus crashed had been the scene of repeated accidents.

Relatives and friends gathered at a nearby school where the bodies of their loved ones were laid out in the gymnasium, ahead of funerals to be held on Tuesday.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano described the accident as “an unacceptable tragedy” and called for improved road safety standards.

A small wooden cross was left by a wellwisher at the site of the crash, propped up near a bunch of roses.

Passengers’ belongings had littered the ground, including a hat, shoes, and a child’s teddy bear.

Photographers at the scene said about a dozen wrecked cars were strewn across the motorway, which had been closed to traffic.

“Looking down from the overpass, the scene of the tragedy: some 30 bodies covered by white sheets, lined up along the roadside,” said Cesare Abbate of Ansa.

One survivor — quoted by his uncle who met him in hospital — reported hearing a tyre exploding and the driver had been unable to control the vehicle.

The last major coach accident in Europe was in Mar 2012 in Switzerland, when a coach carrying Belgian schoolchildren home from a skiing holiday crashed, killing 28 people, including 22 children.


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