A tourist bus that slammed into a concrete wall in a Swiss Alps tunnel, killing 28 people, was not speeding, Swiss police have said.
The bus was carrying students aged about 12 from two different Belgian schools when it crashed shortly after 9pm on Tuesday on a motorway near the southern town of Sierre.
The crash in the short Tunnel de Geronde left the front of the bus mangled, trapping people inside. Twenty-two schoolchildren and six adults, including the driver, were killed and another 24 children were admitted to hospital in what the police chief described as a “scene like a war”.
Belgium flew anxious parents and relatives to the site and called for a day of mourning. The students were from the Stekske primary school in Lommel, near the Dutch border, and from St Lambertus in Heverlee, near Leuven. The children had spent a week skiing in Val d’Anniviers in the Swiss Alps.
A Swiss prosecutor said video cameras in the tunnel captured the crash. Olivier Elsig, prosecutor for the canton of Valais, said the children on the bus were wearing seat belts, no other vehicle was involved and it was not speeding.
He said investigators were looking at three possible causes for the crash — a technical problem with the bus, a health problem with the driver, or human error.
He said the seatbelts would not have helped much due to the severity of the crash and a postmortem examination will be performed on the driver.
“We will examine everything to find out what happened,” Elsig promised.
Dr Jean-Pierre Deslarzes, medical director of the cantonal rescue service OCVS, said rescuers were traumatised because so many of the victims were children.
“We found an apocalyptic situation when we arrived,” said Christian Varone, the police commander, who called the tunnel “safe”.
Police said 21 of the dead were Belgian and seven were Dutch.
Deslarzes said 14 of the injured remain in hospital in Sion, but none had life-threatening injuries.
Three others were taken to Lausanne University Hospital with serious injuries while another child was in a hospital in Bern.
“My first thoughts go to the victims and their families,” Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo said.
Swiss president Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf also flew to Sion to pay her respects to the victims. The Swiss parliament held a minute of silence for the victims.
Widmer-Schlumpf assured Belgium her country would do everything in its power to support the injured and the families of the dead.
The crash occurred in a stretch of tunnel where the speed limit was 100kph. It veered, hit a curb, then rammed into a concrete wall in an emergency stop space, police said. The motorway was closed in both directions as 200 rescuers were called to the scene.
The Top Tours company, based in Aarschot, 40km north-west of Brussels, was in charge of the bus that crashed.
Belgian transport minister Melchior Wathelet said it has a good safety record. “The company has an excellent reputation. The drivers had arrived [in Switzerland] the night before and rested on the day before the departure. It seems that the rules regarding driving and rest time were respected,” said Wathelet. He added the bus was relatively new.
The previous worst accident in a Swiss motorway tunnel happened in 2001, when two trucks collided in the Gotthard tunnel, killing 11 people.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved