Belgian coach crash in Swiss tunnel kills 28

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At least 28 people - including 22 children - have been killed in a coach crash in a tunnel in Switzerland.

Another 24 children were injured in the crash near Sierre, in the canton of Valais, close to the border with Italy.

The coach, carrying 52 people back to the Belgian towns of Lommel and Heverlee following a skiing trip, struck a wall in the tunnel head-on late on Tuesday.

Belgian PM Elio Di Rupo said it was "a tragic day for all of Belgium".

'Incomprehensible'

The bus crashed shortly after 21:00 (20:00 GMT) on Tuesday.

Scene of crash, Switzerland, 14 March 2012 The coach is removed after hitting a concrete wall (right)

In Brussels, the Belgian foreign ministry said most of the children were aged around 12, and the bus was one of three hired by a Christian group. The other two reached Belgium safely.

The children had spent a week skiing in Val d'Anniviers in the Swiss Alps.

At the scene

I have just driven along the route where the accident happened. The coach hit a kerb and then swerved into what is a "stop lane" inside the tunnel. It appears to have then carried on and hit the wall at the end of the lane. Judging by the catastrophic destruction of the bus and the loss of life, this was at a very high speed indeed.

This tunnel is viewed as one of the safest - a motorway tunnel with two lanes each way and a divider so traffic is not facing head-to-head. It looks as though there were no other vehicles involved in this accident.

Although there have been safety questions over some of the more elderly Alpine tunnels, with just two lanes facing each other, this was not one of those. This was a newer tunnel with a lot of safety features - escape lanes, escape telephones, and it's very wide. There should be enough space for traffic not to hit the kerb.

Those on board the bus that crashed were from the Stekske primary school in Lommel, close to the Dutch border, and from St Lambertus in Heverlee, near Leuven, with Belgian media saying the numbers were roughly even.

Ten of the children involved are Dutch, the Dutch foreign ministry said, with all but one of them living in Belgium.

Belgian Transport Minister Melchior Wathelet said the company that ran the coach, Toptours, had "an excellent reputation".

He said: "The drivers had arrived the night before and had rested during the day before departure. It seems that the law on driving and rest periods has been respected."

Both the drivers were among the dead.

Distraught relatives have been arriving at the schools in Belgium, with identification of the dead and injured still not complete.

Andre Joseph Leonard, the archbishop of Belgium, who is in Heverlee, told Associated Press: "There is this terrible fear and uncertainty. There are about eight about whom we don't know what happened, leaving their parents in terrible fear."

Swiss prosecutor Olivier Elsig told a news conference the bus was new, or nearly new, and was equipped with safety belts.

Alpine tunnel disasters

  • 13 March 2012: Bus carrying schoolchildren back from skiing holiday crashes into wall near Sierre, Switzerland, killing 22 children and six adults
  • 24 October 2001: Two lorries collide in Switzerland's Gotthard tunnel, starting a fire, with 11 people killed mainly by smoke and gas inhalation
  • 24 March 1999: A Belgian lorry catches fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel between France and Italy, leaving 39 people dead

In a tunnel where the speed limit is 100km/h (62 mph), Mr Elsig said the bus hit a concrete wall that forms part of an emergency access section head-on. An investigation is under way.

More than 200 people and eight helicopters were involved in the rescue operation.

Valais police chief Christian Varone said it was "a scene like a war".

Some of the injured were flown by helicopters to hospitals in Lausanne, Bern and other Swiss cities.

Swiss journalist Ruth Seeholzer told the BBC that the two-lane tunnel was not busy with traffic when the accident happened and driving conditions were normal.

The Belgian royal family has issued statements expressing deep shock at the tragedy.

Man holding flowers in Heverlee, Belgium, 14 Mar 2012 The town of Heverlee is trying to come to terms with the tragedy

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said: "It is incomprehensible. There were three buses and only one was in an accident, without any contact with another vehicle."

A helpline for families has been set up, and many relatives are expected to arrive in Switzerland later.

Belgium has made two aircraft available to take them to the country.

Belgium's ambassador to Switzerland, Jan Luykx, has already travelled to the crash site.

He said: "This tragedy will hit the whole of Belgium. The magnitude of the accident is difficult to take in. For the moment I am concentrating on the practical aspects. The emotional side will come when we meet the families."

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso sent his "sincere condolences and deepest sympathy" to the victims' relatives.

The European Parliament observed a minute's silence at noon.

The head of the Valais region, Jacques Melly, also expressed his deep sadness at the accident and praised the rescuers for their work in "extremely difficult conditions".

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