Swiss coach crash: Witnesses and relatives try to cope

Flowers are placed outside 't Stekske primary school in Lommel (14 March 2012)
Image caption Many of the children who died came from Lommel

Victims' relatives and witnesses have spoken of their shock at the Swiss coach disaster that has affected two primary schools in Belgium. Across the country, flags are flying at half-mast.

Belgian motorist Eric Vanmalderen, on holiday in Switzerland, was driving behind the coach and described seeing it hit the wall of the tunnel. "I really can't understand it. I can only think of one explanation: [the driver] blacked out," he told the Sudinfo website in Belgium.

Marielle was driving to work only seconds behind the coach when it crashed and told Swiss website Le Nouvelliste that she saw the seats at the front of the vehicle "smash against each other".

She slowed down, not knowing what to do: "I realised I couldn't do anything by myself and I called emergency services." A mother of two young children, she described the scene as something out of a horror movie.

"I imagine the parents' pain. If it had been my children, I don't know what I would have done", she said, adding that she was likely to need psychological help to cope with what she had seen.

'I'll try to be strong'

News of the disaster emerged in the early hours of Wednesday morning and the wife of one of the two bus drivers found out that he had died via the internet.

"Normally, he always lets me know before he sets off," she told Belgian broadcaster VTM. "But that didn't happen last night. When I woke up around half-past three and saw that I still hadn't received a text, I became anxious."

She is now heading to Switzerland where she will "try to be strong".

Belgian news agency Belga reported that hundreds of people had phoned a special emergency number issued by the country's foreign affairs ministry. As well as the many worried parents calling the line, a large number called to offer any assistance they could.

"They're offering all sorts of help, such as transport to Switzerland or their chalets or other holiday homes in Switzerland," spokesman Joren Vandeweyer said.

Lommel victims

Image caption King Albert and Queen Paola observed a minute's silence for those who died

Louis Tobback, the mayor of Leuven (Louvain) where half of the schoolchildren had come from, said that the party from the other school in Lommel, close to the Dutch border, had been very badly affected because they were sitting at the front of the coach.

"Everything points to the children from Heverlee [near Leuven] sitting at the back of the bus."

Only five of the 22 children from Lommel in the group had phoned their parents and there was no information of the others, as grandparents arrived at the school during the day.

Jos Bode whose grand-daughter Jennifer was on the bus said he had been asked to look after two other grandchildren while his son travelled to Switzerland in search of news of Jennifer.

Johan Vlemmix said his niece was on the bus and he too had no information about her. "Normally, I have more to say," he told Dutch news agency ANP.

Sombre mood

Books of condolence are being organised in the Belgian parliament and also in town-halls across the country.

TV and radio in Belgium have altered their schedules, running extended bulletins in reflection of the country's sombre mood.

Schools throughout Flemish areas of Belgium are to hold a minute's silence on Friday in memory of those killed in the crash, Belga news agency reported.

King Albert II spoke to families as they prepared to fly to Switzerland from Melsbroek military airport. Prince Filip and Princess Mathilde, on an economic mission to Vietnam, told reporters of their deep shock. "As parents, we feel an extra connection with the parents of the victims and the families," Princess Mathilde said.

The couple had taken their four children skiing in Switzerland last month.

Seven of the children who died had Dutch nationality and Queen Beatrix responded to the tragedy in a statement on the microblogging site, Twitter: "The Queen feels intense sympathy for the victims and survivors of the bus accident in Switzerland."

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