Friday 24 January 2020

Experts claim death coach not speeding before crash

Relatives and friends of victims of the bus crash gather in front of Saint Lambertus school in Heverlee, Belgium
The wreckage of the bus after it crashed inside a motorway tunnel in Sierre, in the Swiss canton of Valais
The wreckage of the bus after it crashed inside a motorway tunnel in Sierre, in the Swiss canton of Valais
A helicopter takes off from the entrance of the tunnel where the coach crashed in Sierre, western Switzerland
(From left) The Belgian ambassador, Jan Luykx, the president of the Government of Valais, Jacques Melly and the commandant of police, Christian Varone. Photo: Getty Images

THE coach involved in the crash in a Swiss tunnel that left 28 Belgians dead including 22 children was not speeding, investigators said today.

Earlier a senior police officer told Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper that the coach was speeding: "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."

But investigators now believe this not to be the case.

They also said early suggestions show the children were wearing seatbelts.

A further 24 children were injured in the head-on collision in the Valais canton near the border with Italy.

Belgium has declared a day of mourning as a result of the crash.

The coach was carrying school children from Belgium who were returning home after a skiing holiday in Val d’Anniviers in the Swiss Alps.

Police said the children were mostly aged 12 and were from two schools.

There were 52 people on the coach. Both drivers of the coach were among the dead.

The victims were from Lommel and Heverlee in Flanders.

The coach, with a cream and brown striped logo, was travelling on the A9 motorway towards Sion and crashed into the concrete wall of a tunnel near the town of Sierre on Tuesday night at 9.15pm.

The head of the Cantonal police Christian Varone described the crash as “unprecedented”.

An investigation to determine the cause of the crash is underway.

Survivors were taken by helicopter or ambulance to hospitals in the area and to Lausanne and Berne.

The Belgian ambassador Jan Luykx was immediately informed and went to the scene of the crash.

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

The children had been writing a blog about the holiday, stating they were "having a great time skiing" and were "looking forward to getting home".

Jean-Pierre Deslarzes, the medical director of the Valais Canton rescue service, a private state-approved volunteer organisation, said his workers were “in a state of shock and the fact there are children involved has made it even more difficult”.

A rescuer has described the scene of the devastating crash.

Claude Peter, head of the Val d’Anniviers rescue service, arrived in the tunnel at about 10pm. He said children’s cries could not be heard.

“At the scene you could not even children’s cries. In these situations the children are mute, they are in so much shock. Above all it was the injuries that were most graphic,” he said.

“Within the region we have prepared a lot for rescue situations because we have faced a lot of avalanches in the past so our rescuers and doctors are particularly well trained.”

He added: “I have a 12-year-old son and to see all these injured children of the same age was really shocking.”

Those uninjured in the crash had already climbed out of the coach by the time he arrived. Those who were trapped were being cut-free by firefighters.

He told how he cared for the victims in the tunnel.

“Their legs were a mess. It is very stressful to see all these crushed limbs following the impact,” he said.

Belgium’s Le Soir newspaper quoted a survivor, a 12-year-old girl. It said she had spoken by telephone to her father, who has since travelled to Switzerland, and told him: “It was dark. I heard a great bang. All the seats were gone. I found myself wedged between two seats.” She suffered two broken legs and a broken arm.

The President of the government of Valais Jacques Valais Melly expressed his “immense sadness” and “deep emotion”. He offered condolences to the bereaved and thanked rescue workers who worked “in very difficult conditions”.

Police said the collision was “extremely violent”.

A statement read: “A dramatic accident occurred in a motorway tunnel in Sierre. A coach registered in Belgium violently hit a concrete wall. The result was terrible.

“Twenty-eight people died and 24 were injured. The victims were mostly children.

“School children aged 12 and from two schools were on the coach after staying in the region.

“They were returning to Belgium after a ski camp.

“Fifty-two people were on board.

“The driver joined the A9 motorway at Bois de Finges in the direction of Sion and Lausanne. Two kilometres later, for reasons still unknown, the coach veered to the right and struck the curb. He then rammed into a concrete wall.

“The frontal impact was extremely violent. The front of the coach was heavily damaged and many passengers were trapped.

“Police, fire and ambulance crews were immediately engaged. The motorway was closed in both directions to facilitate the rescue. Several people had to be cut free.

“The injured were transported by helicopter or ambulance to various hospitals.

“The identification of victims is underway.”

Alain Rittemer, who led the emergency services, said: “It exceeds anything imaginable. It is like nothing I have experienced in my 20 years with the emergency services. The emotions are overwhelming.”

Sixty firefighters from the towns of Sierre and Sion have been involved in the operation together with 30 police officers, 15 doctors, 12 ambulances, eight helicopters and three psychologists.

Eyewitnesses at the scene of the crash said children’s clothes and suitcases were piled up outside the vehicles. Shreds of turquoise fabric from the curtains of the coach and glass from the windows littered the road.

The front section of the single-storey coach was almost completely destroyed in the collision.

The side panels had been cut open by rescuers to free victims. The vehicle was towed away by police in the early hours of Wednesday.

There were 52 people on board – the two drivers, four other adults and 46 children.

The speed limit in the tunnel is 100km/h (62mph). The 2.5km tunnel was built in November 1999. An average of 15,000 vehicles pass through the tunnel each day.

The accident happened just 15 miles into the journey. It is estimated the coach would have been on the road for about 40 minutes.

Driving conditions were not considered hazardous on Tuesday night. There was no rain or fresh snowfall and the roads were not busy.

Swiss prosecutor Olivier Elsig said the bus was modern and was equipped with seat belts throughout.

The coach belonged to Toptours in Aarschot in Belgium. The company had an “excellent” reputation, according to the Belgian Secretary of State for Transport, Melchior Wathelet.

The driver had arrived on Monday – the day before departure - in the resort of Val d’Anniviers where the school parties were holidaying in order to comply with the laws on driving time and rest.

The vehicle was one of three coaches hired by a Christian group. The other two reached Belgium safely.

Simon Epiney, the President of the commune of d’Anniviers, said the community was in shock.

“A strong bond has been created over time between the society Intersoc, a large Belgian company that organises the trips each year, and the resort,” he said.

Intersoc enables, in particular, low-income families to go on skiing holidays. Up until two years ago, the school parties would travel by train.

He said the company had owned two hotels – one in Saint-Luc and the other in Zinal in the Val d’Anniviers, for more than 30 years.

“I do not understand the accident. It happened in a well-lit tunnel, especially since it seems there were no other vehicles in the tunnel at the time of the tragedy. The bus is now unrecognisable.”

The head of the Cantonal police Christian Varone described the crash as “unprecedented” and said even seasoned rescuers had been traumatised.

Rescuers worked through the night to free the injured.

Police said the coach veered to the right and struck a curb before ramming into a concrete wall at the end of an emergency bay. No other vehicles were involved in the crash.

The injured were taken to a number of hospitals. Two of the critically injured were taken to the University Hospital, Lausanne, and a third was airlifted to Bern.

According to Belgian newspaper Het Belang van Limburg, the children were from two schools — the Sint-Lambertus school in Heverlee and 't Stekske school in Lommel.

At least two of the injured children are in a critical condition. They have been transferred to the University Hospital in Lausanne.

Hospital spokeswoman Darcy Christen said: “We are confronted with three problems. The serious injuries to the children, their identification and the care of their parents in the best possible conditions.” It is one of the worst coach accidents in Switzerland in the last 30 years.

In 1982 in Pfäffikon near Zurich 39 people were killed when their bus was hit by a regional train on a level crossing after the manually-operated barriers were not closed. There were just two survivors.

On Wednesday morning the Swiss parliament held a minute’s silence for the victims of the crash, as did their colleagues in the Valais local parliament.

The Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf was due to visit the scene on Wednesday afternoon.

Two military aircraft carrying 82 family members are due to fly from Belgium on Wednesday afternoon, landing in Geneva at 2pm.

Belgium is sending a team of specialists to help with the identification of victims.

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