26 Britons die in South Africa as coach plunges off mountain road

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AT LEAST 26 elderly British tourists and a South African tour guide were killed yesterday and 10 were injured in a remote part of South Africa when the coach in which they were travelling left the road and careered down a mountainside. Most of the victims died at the scene.

The tourists, on the 14th day of a three-week tour, were on their way from Sabi Sabi game reserve, near the Kruger National park, to Pretoria, winding through a switchback pass in the eastern Drakensburg Mountains. There were skid marks on the road half a mile from the crash scene, according to Tinus Joubert, a local who was one of the first on the scene.

There were 37 people on the bus, including the driver and two tour guides. The holiday was booked through Thomas Cook, while the bus belonged to the Springbok Atlas company, based in Cape Town. Last night, as Thomas Cook sent experts to the scene and as relatives of the dead travelled to South Africa to identify them, some of the survivors were named.

Caroline Sandover, 45, of Oxted, Surrey, had just come out of surgery, said a spokeswoman for the intensive care unit at Nelspruit clinic where the critically injured were being treated. "She is still serious but her condition is stable," she said.

A man and a woman who were seriously injured were transferred by ambulance from Lydenburg hospital to the clinic. The woman had head and chest injuries and the man suffered multiple fractures. The Britons being treated at Lydenburg Hospital were named as Jane Sparrow, Lesley Dicks, Harry Smith, Barry Watson, Shelley Wood and Dennis Dryden and their South African driver as Titus Dube. Bob Thain, the British consul in Pretoria, last night visited some of the survivors in hospital.

Ms Dicks, of Worthing, was interviewed briefly by Radio 702, a local station, after being treated for head injuries. She said she had little recollection of the crash but that the bus had appeared to be travelling "at speed" before it went out of control. "All of us were shouting `stop, stop', but obviously he [the driver] couldn't do it... I wasn't that aware because literally the next thing I knew I was on the bank side and [there was] blood and I couldn't see out of my right eye because of the lacerations."

Hours after the impact, as rescue workers hauled the bus back up towards the road, the twisted wreckage told its own story. Without the protection of the roof and its supports, most of the victims were crushed under the rolling bus. Lydenburg's public safety officer, Fanus Van Eck, who was the first on the scene, supervised the recovery of the wreckage from 150 metres down the hill.

"What I saw when I got here was really horrible," he said. "I have never seen anything so bad... There were bodies all over the road."

The 35-mile long Long Tom Pass where the accident happened aas the site of the last formal engagement between British and Boer troops almost 100 years ago. Then the same switchbacks that contributed to yesterday's tragedy allowed retreating Boer gunners to rain down the last of their "Long Tom" shells on British columns advancing up the pass.

South Africa's Transport Minister, Dullah Omar, expressed his condolences to the families of the victims and said the South African government would open a high-level investigation into the accident. He said Springbok Atlas had an excellent safety record. While this is the fifth South African bus crash this month, it is the first to involve foreign tourists. However, it brings the death toll from bus crashes this month alone to 70.

Thomas Cook's managing director, Simon Laxton, said the company was sending engineers, legal advisers and customer service representatives to help survivors and to mount their own investigation into the accident. The company would be speaking to customers who were due to leave Britain for a similar tour to South Africa in the next couple of days. Thomas Cook has set up an emergency helpline for relatives: 01733 417502.

Further reports, page 3