Swiss prosecutors were last night examining the wreckage of the Belgian coach that ploughed head-on into an alpine tunnel wall on Tuesday night, killing 28 people – including 22 schoolchildren – in one of the worst bus crashes in the country's history.
The tour bus, belonging to a Belgian travel firm, was carrying 52 people when it hit the kerb in a fully lit, one-way tunnel near Sierre in the southern Swiss Alps. The vehicle then swung out of control and struck a wall in an emergency stopping bay. The accident occurred shortly after 9pm on Tuesday.
Rescue workers spoke of "shocking scenes" as they tried to extract dead and injured children trapped in the wreckage. Christian Varone, the Swiss police chief in charge, said it was "like a war".
Police and prosecutors said they were trying to establish whether human error or mechanical failure had caused the accident. All the children on board were said to have been wearing seatbelts. "We have no theory as yet, the investigation is still continuing," Varone told a press conference the Swiss town of Sion last night.
Although eyewitnesses said the scope of the damage suggested that the bus had been exceeding the 62mph speed limit of the tunnel, a Swiss prosecutor, Olivier Elsig, said yesterday that the bus was not speeding. Police said CCTV pictures of the bus suggested that it had hit both sides of the tunnel.
The coach had been carrying pupils from different schools in the Belgian towns of Lommel and Heverlee. With an average age of about 12, they were on their way back from a week's skiing holiday in Val d'Anniviers in the Valais Alps bordering France.
Six adults accompanying the party, including teachers and two bus drivers, were killed in the crash. A further 24 pupils were injured, many of them seriously. More than 200 police, firemen and medical staff worked through the night at the scene of the accident. Twelve ambulances and eight helicopters were used to take the injured to hospitals in Lausanne, Bern and other cities. Three of children were said to be in a critical state last night.
In Belgium distraught parents of the victims assembled at their children's schools yesterday to be flown to Switzerland on military aircraft. "Some parents know their kids have survived, but for others there is no news," said Belgian police spokesman Marc Vranckx.