News24

Belgium mourns bus crash victims

2012-03-16 14:13

Brussels - Belgium held a day of national mourning on Friday for the 22 children and six adults who died in a bus crash in a Swiss alpine tunnel as the bodies of the victims were flown home.

The remains of the 28 victims were loaded into Belgian military planes in Sion, Switzerland, a day after the parents undertook the tragic task of identifying their children and visited the site of Tuesday night's accident.

After an honour ceremony held away from the media, blue uniformed officers at about 07:30 GMT marched onto the tarmac of the airport, not far from the crash location, and a half hour later two military C130 planes took off to Belgium.

Eight of the 24 children injured in the horrific accident returned home overnight, landing at Melsbroek military airport near Brussels before boarding buses and cars with relieved loved ones accompanied by a police escort.

With flags flying at half-mast, Belgium was to hold a minute of silence at 11:00 with church bells tolling in remembrance of the young victims whose deaths shocked the nation.

Broadcasters will also go quiet and drivers of buses, metros and trains will switch off their engines for a minute as the nation copes with an outpouring of grief.

"The whole country weeps for its children," Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo told parliament on Thursday.

The victims include 22 Belgian nationals and six Dutch children.

Emotional evening vigil

The children, who went to Catholic schools in the central Belgium town of Heverlee and the community of Lommel on the border with the Netherlands, had spent a week-long ski trip in the Swiss alpine retreat of Val d'Anniviers.

Flowers, teddy bears and notes have been left by well-wishers at the gates of their two schools.

About 2 500 people held an emotional evening vigil on Thursday in Lommel as classmates and neighbours turned out to pray for the dead during a Catholic service.

"With this candle, I am thinking of you," a church worker said for each of the 24 names read out in the tight-knit town of 33 000.

The toll at the primary school of about 200 children, whose name means "the little matchstick" in Dutch, was particularly high, apparently because this group was seated at the front of the bus when it smashed into the tunnel wall.

"This is a small town where nothing ever happens and everybody knows everybody else," said 51-year-old local Peter Flament.

Back in Switzerland, investigators sought to unravel the cause of the tragedy, with news reports saying the bus driver had tried to play a DVD shortly before the crash, suggesting a "moment of distraction" may be to blame.

This claim was rejected by the man's employer and dismissed as speculation by Swiss police.

Critical condition

Forty-six children and four teachers from two Belgian schools were returning home from a skiing holiday late on Tuesday when their coach slammed into a concrete wall in the motorway tunnel in southern Switzerland.

Family members laid flowers at the crash site on Thursday after visiting the bodies at the morgue.

Three of the injured children remained in critical condition, a Swiss hospital spokesperson said on Thursday, and could not be moved.

The body of the driver was also expected to remain as "health analyses have to be carried out" to check if he was suffering from an illness that could have caused the accident.

After police said they did not believe the driver had been speeding, Swiss authorities said there would be a rethink about safety designs in the 2.5km tunnel.

It is believed that the coach clipped a kerb before it slammed into the wall of a rectangular emergency stop area.

A 100km/h speed limit was also questioned by the press.