By BosNewsLife News Center with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
GENEVA/BRUSSELS (BosNewsLife)– Belgium announced plans for a national day of mourning Wednesday, March 14, just hours after over 20 students of a Christian youth camp were among those killed when the bus in which they traveled slammed into a tunnel wall in the Swiss Alps.
The crash, one of Switzerland’s worst accidents in 30 years, happened late Tuesday, March 13, on the A9 highway near the town of Sierre, close to the Swiss-Italian border, police said.
Investigators said the bus was carrying 52 people, mostly 11 and 12-year-old students from two different Catholic Belgian schools. The vehicle returned to the Belgian towns of Heverlee and Lommel after a skiing trip in Swiss resort Val d’Anniviers.
In Brussels, the Belgian foreign ministry said the bus was one of three hired by a Christian group. The other two reached Belgium safely.
Those who died, including 22 children, were reportedly singing shortly before the crash.
BUS HIT WALL
However, suddenly, “The bus hit the barrier stones on the right side of the road,” Swiss police said. “It then hit the tunnel wall head on in an emergency stop space…Because of the strong impact the bus was badly damaged and several passengers were trapped in the wreckage.”
Among the victims were 21 Belgians and seven people from the Netherlands, with a further 24 people hospitalized after the head-on collision. The injured included 17 Belgians, three Dutch and one person from Poland and Germany respectively, officials said.
“It is a black day for all of Belgium,” stressed Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.
Surgeon Dr Jean-Pierre Deslarzes added in one of the hospitals: “All the rescuers were shocked by what they have experienced.”
He recalled that over 200 people were involved in the rescue operation at the accident scene, including 15 doctors, 30 police officers and 60 fire officers. It took more than eight hours, officials said.
“This tragedy will hit the whole of Belgium,” the Belgian Ambassador to Switzerland Jan Luykx told Swiss news agency SDA-ATS. “The magnitude of the accident is difficult to digest.”
A crisis center was set up and an emergency number provided for families. In Valais the victims’ helpline is +41 848 112 117, officials said.
Children at St Lambertus school in Heverlee, a suburb of Leuven, were informed about the accident at an assembly before classes. Flowers were laid outside the Catholic school where eight children were still unaccounted for.
“The eight sets of parents, they can only sit and wait, they just don’t know. I’m in pain, I have tears inside,” Dirk De Gendt, a local priest who is on the school board, told Reuters news agency.
A teacher from St Lambertus was killed along with the bus’s two drivers and three other adults.
Teachers covered boards outside the school and the school gates with their pupils’ drawings – many rainbows, flowers and references to “Mister Frank”, the sixth-grade teacher who died.
Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf visited the accident scene during the day, before attending a media conference with di Rupo on Wednesday evening. The country will be offering all its support to the victims and their families, she said.
Belgian authorities said the transport company had an excellent reputation and that the drivers appeared to have kept the driving and rest regulations.
Swiss prosecutor Olivier Elsig told reporters that he would do everything to ensure that the investigation would take place in total transparency.
Families arrived later in the day, accompanied by psychologists.
They had flown to Geneva aboard a government plane, after briefly meeting King Albert II, Queen Paola and Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, as news of the horrific crash in an Alpine tunnel plunged Belgium into mourning.
Archbishop Leonard said the parents had “felt something that resembled the cry of Jesus on the cross “My God, why did you abandon me?'”