Bus crash shatters children's hometown
Lommel - Classmates of children killed in a Swiss alpine tunnel huddled weeping in the schoolyard on Thursday as the sleepy Belgian hometown of many of the victims faced the trauma of the horrific crash.
"We could not sleep last night," said an open letter written by teachers from the 't Stekske school that sent 22 students and two teachers on the fateful skiing trip. "There were so many things going through our heads."
Of the group on the coach that slammed into a concrete wall in the tunnel late on Tuesday, just seven of the 't Stekske pupils survived.
As the school-gates opened at 08:00, wet-eyed children and parents with tense strained faces arrived bearing flowers, toys, drawings, candles and words of comfort.
"No more future, no more beautiful children's dreams, just your unbearable and endless pain: We share it with you," said a message left among flowers near the school entrance.
In the yard of the primary school whose name means "the little matchstick" in Dutch, small boys kicked a football around waiting for the bell to ring and watched the press massed on the street outside.
But older ones huddled in small groups, many weeping heavily.
For the primary school of 200 in northeast Belgium near the Dutch border the toll was particularly heavy, apparently because the children were at the front of the bus when it hit the tunnel wall.
The crash killed 28 of the 52 people aboard, including four adults and two drivers. Seventeen of the dead were from 't Stekske, including its teachers. Two teachers and seven children from Sint-Lambertus school in central Belgium also died.
"Nothing will ever be the same again," said Anouck Janssens, who lives by the school. "The news hit us like a bomb, it was horrible."
"Lommel is traumatised," said 51-year-old Peter Flament of the town of 33 000 people. "This is a small town where nothing ever happens and everybody knows everybody else. So when something like this happens, it hurts."
Stefan Groeenendal, his eyes puffy from tears, called it "an enormous drama" as he hurried into the school with his two small boys. "Max, who's 11, knew several of the children who were killed. He did a lot of crying yesterday."
"Come on, let's go to school, OK?" said a mother, forcing herself to smile at her daughter.
The mother of two other girls of 8- and 6-years-old, Joyce Vlassak, said everyone "realises it's the worst nightmare a parent can have".
"I can imagine what those parents are going through."
The school is organising psychological help for the teachers and pupils and a mass will be held in the town late on Thursday as Belgium waits for the possible return the same day of the first of the children who were only slightly hurt.
The return of the bodies of those killed "will take more time", said deputy mayor Kris Verduyckt.
At the town hall a long queue waited to sign a book of condolences stating "Courage to the Family!"