Belgian authorities have flown anxious parents to the town in the Swiss Alps where a tour bus carrying students home from a class trip slammed into a tunnel wall, killing 22 Belgian students and six adults and instantly changing a joyous skiing vacation into a tragedy.
Police said 21 of those killed were Belgian and seven were Dutch. Another 24 students were hospitalized with injuries; three children are comatose.
As authorities tried Wednesday to piece together what happened, parents, classmates and rescue workers struggled to come to grips the awful turn of events. Only days earlier, the children had updated a lively blog about the highlights of their adventure: ravioli and meatball dinners, cable-car rides and sing-a-longs.
Police said the bus was not speeding and everyone aboard had been wearing seat belts when it crashed late Tuesday inside the 2.5-kilometre Tunnel de Geronde on a highway near the southern town of Sierre, a gateway to the Val d'Anniviers tourist region. No other vehicles were involved.
The Swiss parliament held a minute of silence for the victims
The bus carrying 52 people, including 12-year-old students from two different Belgian schools, crashed around 9 p.m. local time Tuesday inside a tunnel on the A9 highway near Sierre, Switzerland, in the southern Swiss canton (state) of Valais, an area of popular ski resorts in the Swiss Alps.
A Swiss prosecutor said the bus was not speeding. Olivier Elsig, prosecutor for the canton of Valais, also told reporters the children on the bus were wearing seat belts and no other vehicle involved.
Elsig 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.
The police chief in the canton of Valais, Christian Varone, told a separate news conference that rescuers were greeted by what he called "a scene like a war."
"We have had a number of serious accidents in Valais but nothing like this with so many young victims," he said.
Authorities were still identifying all the victims, said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders.
"It is incomprehensible. There were three buses and only one was in [an] accident without any contact with another vehicle," Reynders said.
Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, who flew with the families of the victims to Switzerland later in the day, said this is "an extremely sad day for all of Belgium."
Police said the students had spent the last few days at a ski camp and were on their way back to Belgium. While in Switzerland, students at one school posted to a blog that brimmed with enthusiasm.
"Today was totally the best," one girl wrote. "The adventurous walk was tiring but mega-cool. We won first prize for cleanest room. Tomorrow it's going to be colder. Byyyeeee!"
On March 10, another boy wrote: "Things are super here in Saint-Luc. The skiing, the weather, the food. It's not bad at all. Tomorrow I play in the Muppet Show. … I have seen quite a few dogs. I'm now reading the book 'Why Dogs Have Wet Noses.' Very interesting! I miss you all." The posts came with scores of photos the youngsters made during their trip.
On day Day 5 of the vacation, a teacher posted a note meant to reassure parents back at home: "For now we do not see much homesickness. But from the reactions of the children we gather that they miss you a little bit." The teacher who set up the blog, Frank Van Kerckhove, was one of the six adults killed in the crash.
Crisis centre established
Police said the bus had veered and hit a curb, then rammed into a concrete wall in the tunnel. The front of the bus was heavily damaged and blocked people from getting out.
"The bus hit the barrier stones on the right side of the road. It then hit the tunnel wall front-on in an emergency stop space," police said in a statement. "Because of the strong impact, the bus was badly damaged and several passengers were trapped in the wreckage."
Belgian media reported that most of the children were from two towns, Lommel, east of Antwerp, and Heverlee, near Leuven.
The Alpine city of Sierre, capital of canton Valais, is a gateway to the Val d'Anniviers tourist region and is connected to the popular Crans-Montana ski resort by funicular railway.