THE first survivors of a bus crash that shocked Belgium returned to a national day of mourning Friday, after grieving parents laid flowers at the Swiss Alps tunnel site where 22 schoolchildren died.
Eight preteens hurt in the horrific road accident that also claimed six adult lives, landed at Melsbroek military airport near Brussels, according to a Swiss hospital official, before speeding off with relieved loved ones accompanied by a police escort.
The first bodies of the victims – mainly Belgian and Dutch 11- and 12-year-olds who had spent a week on Switzerland's ski slopes – will come home later on Friday.
"The operation of repatriating the bodies will begin at 7.30am [local time] at the Sion airport," the Swiss police said in a statement, adding that the country's president and other senior government officials will attend.
"Honours will be paid to the victims of this dramatic accident," it said.
Swiss police Commander Christian Varone said 19 of the 28 bodies had been identified.
A photographer said no ambulances were in view when a Belgian military plane landed shortly after midnight.
Grieving Belgians held an emotional evening vigil late on Thursday as classmates and neighbours turned out to pray for the dead in Lommel, a sleepy town of 33,000 where many of the victims came from.
Police said 2,500 people congregated around a Catholic service.
"With this candle, I am thinking of you," a church worker said for each of the 24 names read out.
The town's grief set the tone for a minute's silence across Belgium due at 11.00am (1000 GMT), with flags flown at half-mast and drivers of buses, metros and trains asked to switch off their engines as a mark of respect.
Back in Switzerland, grieving parents laid flowers Thursday at the crash site as investigators sought to unravel the cause of the tragedy.
As some relatives visited the morgue holding the bodies of the 28 victims, news reports said the bus driver had tried to play a DVD shortly before the crash, suggesting a "moment of distraction" may be to blame.
This claim was rejected by the man's employer and dismissed as speculation by Swiss police.
The tunnel where the coach crashed into a wall remained closed to the public and media were kept at a distance as family members arrived.
Forty-six children and four teachers from two Belgian schools were returning home from a skiing holiday late Tuesday when their coach slammed into a concrete wall in the motorway tunnel in southern Switzerland.
Twenty-two of the dead were from Belgium while the other six fatalities were from the Netherlands.
Three of the injured children remained in critical condition, a Swiss hospital spokeswoman said, and could not be moved.
The body of the driver was also expected to remain as "health analyses have to be carried out" to check if he was suffering from an illness that could have caused the accident.
After police said they did not believe the driver had been speeding, Swiss authorities said there would be a rethink about safety designs in the 1.5-mile tunnel.
It is believed that the coach clipped a kerb before it slammed into the wall of a rectangular emergency stop area.
A 60-mile per hour speed limit was also questioned by the press.
While Switzerland pondered how the tragedy had occurred, Belgium's Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo told his country's parliament: "The whole country weeps for its children."
Classmates of the dead wept in the schoolyard as Lommel faced up to the trauma.
Tearful children accompanied by tense parents came bearing flowers, toys, drawings, candles and words of comfort.
"No more future, no more beautiful children's dreams, just your unbearable and endless pain: we share it with you," said a message left among piles of flowers at the school entrance.
The toll at this primary school of around 200 children, whose name means "the little matchstick" in Dutch, was particularly high, apparently because this group was seated at the front of the bus when it smashed into the tunnel wall.
"This is a small town where nothing ever happens and everybody knows everybody else," said 51-year-old local Peter Flament.