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Friday, March 16, 2012

First pictures of the young victims of school ski bus crash that killed 28 as it emerges driver 'was helping teacher change DVD'

-School picture shows some of the children believed to have been killed in the crash
-Investigators say three possible causes: Technical problem with the bus, a driver health problem, or human error
-28, including 22 children, were killed after bus 'veered, then rammed into a concrete wall in the tunnel'
-Children's poignant blog posts revealed how they were having a 'super' time and some were homesick
-Girl, 12, first survivor to speak of the horror talks of how 'everything went dark'
-Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said: 'It is a black day for all of Belgium'

By Peter Allen, Ian Sparks and Alexandra Williams

Victims: These children, from the Stekske school in Belgium, were all killed in the Swiss bus crash that claimed the lives of 22 children and six adults

These are the first photographs to emerge of some of the children killed in the devastating Swiss tunnel bus crash - as it was revealed the driver could have been helping a teacher to change a DVD moments before the accident.

Young survivors of the horrific smash told their parents the driver was seen trying to insert the disc as they drove along the A9 motorway in Switzerland. The fear is that the driver – one of two who died – was distracted and lost control.

Renato Kalbermatten, spokesman for the Swiss police, confirmed the theory was being examined, although CCTV footage ‘did not make the situation very clear'.

Portraits of the smiling Stekske school children were placed on display at Lommel Town Hall as hundreds of Belgians arrived to pay tribute to the 22 youngsters and six adults who lost their lives.

Scroll down for video...

Tragic: The Stekske pupils were returning from a skiing holiday when the bus they were travelling on careered into the wall of a tunnel

Lost lives: The majority of the children were aged just 12 years old. Scores of tributes have been left outside the Stekske school

Sadness: Families of the victims, including teacher Mr Raymond (far right), were taken to leave tributes at the crash site today

Tributes: A woman pictured at Lommel City Hall where a condolences register has been set up, and (right) teacher Mrs Vanheulekom

Signing: Citizens sign the condolences book at Lommel Town Hall in front of photographs of children who died in the Swiss bus crash

A distraught mother of one of the teachers killed said she 'could not believe' her daughter 'is gone'. Fern Vanheukelom was on board the coach that smashed into the wall of an underpass with her 11-year-old nephew Sam Geboers - who miraculously survived.

Her mother said: 'I can not believe Fern is gone. When we heard the news the morning of the accident with the Stekske School bus I immediately thought of Fern. This is terrible, she was so young.'

Today it was also revealed one girl and two boys remain in a coma at the University Hospital in Lausanne after suffering severe brain and chest injuries. Relatives also visited the crash site in the tunnel today to leave flowers in tribute to their loved ones.

A child taken to Bern Hospital was said to now be 'out of danger', while 14 children at Sion Hospital are doing 'relatively well' - despite suffering leg, rib, spine and skull fractures. Some are even expected to return to Belgium later today or tomorrow.

Earlier today investigators said the driver could have had a heart attack at the wheel. The theory was just one of three others being looked at as the cause of the horrific smash which saw the front of the vehicle, containing 52 people returning home to Belgium from a Swiss skiing holiday, all but disintegrate.

Human error or a technical problem with the coach were the other two possibilities, but they have now been discounted.

It came as a criminal prosecutor discounted police theories the bus, which ploughed into an underpass wall, had been speeding. Twenty eight others were seriously injured, with two other children fighting for their lives after been airlifted to nearby hospitals.

Tribute: Tearful relatives of the victims of the Swiss bus crash left flowers at the site of the accident today

Tragic: Relatives of the Swiss bus crash victims pictured at the morgue in Sion where their bodies have been taken

Sad trip: A bus carrying the relatives of the bus crash victims is escorted by a police motorbike as it leaves the tunnel after the families paid tribute at the site

It also comes as the first rescuers on the scene described how the 'screams of survivors' put them into a state of shock, and families of some of the victims were today being taken to the morgue to identify the bodies.

Alain Rittemer, chief of emergency services in the Canton of Valais, said it took a full two hours to work their way through the 'apocalypse' of mangled wreckage on Tuesday night.

He said: 'The first thing we heard on arriving at the scene was the screams of the children - it's almost impossible to describe. Hearing the screams put rescuers in a state of shock. All are experienced, but you cannot imagine what it was like.'

The crash, in which 28 people were also seriously injured, happened shortly after the party of 52 schoolchildren and staff from Belgium and Holland set off for home following a holiday in the Alpine ski resort of Val d'Annivers.

The coach entered the two-mile-long Sierre tunnel on the A9 motorway at around 9.15pm on Tuesday and clipped the kerb in the outside lane, before careering into a concrete wall.

Mr Rittemer said his team of paramedics arrived within 20 minutes, and had to break their way in through windows at the back.

He said: 'You could imagine that the children whom we found were our own. This was a vision which we were not used to seeing, and I've been doing this job for 20 years. Our main aim was to get to the children, most of whom could not move because they were trapped in the piles of scrap metal.

'That said, we did not need to speak. We only needed to look in their eyes and hold their hands.'

He added: 'We reached the last casualty two hours after our arrival on the scene 20 minutes after the accident. The last dead body, that of the second driver, was finally removed at 4.15am'.

Parents of the victims gathered at the two primary schools in Belgium yesterday before boarding a military aircraft. They did not know whether their children were dead or alive. 'There's no news, simply no news,' said one red-eyed father.

A 12-year-old girl aboard the bus who escaped with serious injuries was the first survivor to describe what happened. She said: 'I felt a hard jolt. Then everything went dark. 'The seats worked loose and were flung around the bus. I was hurled forward and ended up pinned between two of the seats.' The girl broke both of her legs and an arm.

Victims: A mourner outside St Lambertus school pictured holding up a photo of pupils that could have been on the trip

Girls light candle tributes during a vigil for the victims of a tourist bus crash in a tunnel of the motorway A9, in Sierre, western Switzerland

Smashed: The wreckage of the bus which crashed into an underpass in Sierre, in the Swiss canton of Valais, killing 28, including 22 children

A motorist who drove into the tunnel just after the crash has also described the terrifying scene. She told the Mirror: 'I saw the front seats of the bus all smashed against each other and there was blood everywhere. I saw children who were still alive waving to be saved.

'I saw smoke coming from the bus. There was no one, no police or firefighters. I realised I couldn't do anything alone and I called for assistance. It was horrific. It was like a horror movie.

'I can still see all those children's faces staring at me. I don't even know is some were alive or dead. It was horrible.'

Belgium's King Albert today said his thoughts 'go out to the victims and their families'. Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said: 'It is a black day for all of Belgium'.

A senior officer who was among 200 emergency workers at the scene of the accident said: 'The impact was terrifying.' Another told Belgium's Le Soir newspaper:

'The coach was travelling at very high speed. It was going considerably faster than the speed limit on a stretch of road where the speed is limited to 100kmh.'

Grieving: Visitors pictured in tears outside Stekske primary school in Lommel (left) as notes are left outside St Lambertus school (right)

Heart wrenching: Teachers at St Lambertus attach drawings of pupils at the school gate on Wednesday morning

But CCTV film of the crash appeared to suggest that the coach might not have been travelling above the 62mph limit inside the two mile tunnel, which is part of the A9 motorway.

And despite early reports blaming the driver for breaking the 63mph speed limit, Swiss police said they were looking at other factors.

Prosecutor Olivier Elsig said: ‘The coach was not going too fast. Three hypotheses are being examined – firstly, a technical problem; secondly, the driver’s health; and thirdly, human error.’ The coach was fitted with seatbelts, but it was unclear if the passengers were wearing them.

The Swiss authorities have launched an inquiry into the accident, which happened in the Sierre Tunnel, in the canton of Valais.

The coach hit the kerb, crossed an emergency stopping area, and then hit the concrete wall backed by Alpine rock. Two drivers on board both died.

Dutch and Belgian children aged between 11 and 12 made up the majority of the victims, who had all been enjoying a skiing break in the Swiss resort of Anniviers.

When the coach was pictured a few hours before the 9pm (8pm GMT) accident, none of the passengers appeared to have been wearing seat belts.

However, the CCTV film is said to show passengers in fact wearing their belts.

Victims were from St Lambert School, in the north eastern Belgian town of Heverlee, and from the Stekske School in Lommel, on the Belgian border close to the Dutch city of Eindehoven.

The first victims named were teachers Raymond Theunis, 54, and Veerle Vanheukelom, 38, both of whom were from Lommel.

Rescuers said the fatalities would have been even worse if the coach had caught fire.
Suitcases were flung across the carriageway, with children's clothes falling out of them, said one rescuer.

Christian Varone, head of police in the Valais region, described the aftermath as 'being like a warzone'. Mr Varone added: 'We have had a number of serious accidents in Valais but nothing like this, with so many young victims.'

Those who worked for around eight hours at the scene included 15 doctors, 30 policemen, 60 firefighters, 100 ambulance workers and three psychologists. Twelve ambulances and eight helicopters were also involved. Mr Elsig, the prosecutor, said no other vehicles were involved in the accident.

'The coach is a modern, up-to-date one, and fitted with seatbelts throughout,' said Mr Elsig. Helicopters were used to fly many of the worst injured to hospitals in the Swiss cities of Lausanne and Berne. The Sierre Tunnel is just a decade old, and is wide and well lit, said the prosecutor. Weather conditions were good at the time of the accident, he added.

Among the dead were seven Dutch children because the schools are close to the border. Parents had been keeping in touch with their children via a school blog. One final posting read: ‘Dearest mum and dad, the food is very tasty... The skiing is good. But I miss you so much…’

Heartbreaking: A young girl pays tribute to the victims of the bus crash outside St Lambertus school

Tragic: A child's drawing is seen posted on a wall outside St Lambertus school (left) as a former student breaks down in tears (right)

Tribute: Flowers have been left in front of the entrance to the tunnel where the accident occurred

The coach, which had been hired for the trip by a Christian trade union, belonged to Toptours, a company from the town of Aerschot with an 'excellent reputation', according to Belgian transport minister Melchior Wathelet.

Children on the coach had set up a blog about their ski holiday in Italy - posting messages about their trip, saying they had been 'having a great time skiing' and that they were 'looking forward to getting home.'

Toptours, which runs a fleet of 14 coaches, specialises in winter sports, and regularly transports passengers from Belgium to Austrian and Italian resorts. Didier Reynders, the Belgian foreign minister, said victims were being identified, while next-of-kin were being flown to Switzerland.

'It is incomprehensible,' said Mr Reynders. 'There were three buses yet only one hit the wall, apparently without contact with any other vehicle.' Jan Luykx, the Belgian ambassador to Switzerland, said : 'This tragedy will devastate the whole of Belgium.

All of the victims came from two villages.

'The scale of the accident is impossible to digest. We are currently focusing on the practical aspects of dealing with this tragedy.'

source: dailymail


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