Four British students and their tour guide have been killed in a bus crash in Ecuador, just two weeks into a three-month trip across South America.
Rebecca Logie, Emily Sadler and Lizzie Pincock, all 19, and Indira Swann, 18, died along with Sarah Howard, 26, their guide from the travel company VentureCo – a Warwick-based gap-year specialist.
The crash took place on Saturday night when a lorry carrying sand smashed into the side of their coach at high speed. The lorry driver fled the scene, according to local police reports.
By the time emergency crews reached the wrecked bus, on the road between Manta and Jipijapa, nothing could be done to save the women. Police said that the injured included 12 British tourists, a tour guide and a driver – both Ecuadorian – and a French citizen.
A spokesman for Gordon Brown said the Prime Minister was "deeply saddened" to hear of the deaths and the Foreign Office confirmed that all their families had been informed. It said the Ecuadorian military had flown the acting British ambassador to visit the injured in hospital in Manta.
"We also understand that the Ecuador authorities have appointed a prosecutor to investigate the accident. We welcome this," added a spokesman.
The group was just 30 minutes from the end of an eight-hour drive from Ecuador's capital, Quito, when the accident happened. Having completed a two-week Spanish language course, the Britons were on their way to the fishing village of Puerto Lopez, on the Pacific coast, to start a two-week volunteer project building sanitary and other facilities for a crèche.
The victims had each paid £5,645 to take part in VentureCo's "Inca and Amazon Venture" across Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Over the next 15 weeks, they were due to explore the Amazon jungle and river, help with rural community projects in the Andes, follow the Great Inca Road and visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu.
Ms Logie's parents Robin and Jane, from Chorley, Lancashire, said: "She lived life to the full. I do not want anybody to be put off by what happened to our daughter – it was an accident."
Ms Sadler's parents, Graham and Kay, said their daughter was "a beautiful bubbly girl with her whole life ahead of her".
The 19-year-old lived in Northwood, Hertfordshire, with her parents, two sisters Annelisa and Libby and two brothers George and William.
She was planning to study history at Manchester University and had worked as a swimming teacher for a gym and as a teaching assistant to save money to pay for the trip.
Only last Wednesday, Ms Swann, of Maidenhead, Berkshire, had written to friends via the social networking website Facebook. "Hello from Ecuador," she wrote. "Just wanted to drop a line to let everyone know I'm great.
"Having an amazing time, learning Spanish, acquiring ethnic clothing, climbing volcanoes (to 5,300m!) and salsa dancing very badly, along with great friends and a fair amount of very cheap tequila. Love to all. See you guys very soon I'm sure (it's going very, very fast!)"
One of her friends, Sofia Choudary, paid tribute on Facebook, saying: "U were such a happy, fantastic person. It's shocking that u have left us so soon. I'm gna miss u Dira. My condolences r with ur family and friends."
Ms Sadler attended the private North London Collegiate School for Girls, while Ms Pincock was at Taunton School in Somerset until last year, where she was head of house and played hockey for the first team.
Their trek leader, Ms Howard, a graduate of Durham University, was on her first expedition as a freelance guide for VentureCo. Last night friends began posting tributes to her on the internet. A spokesman for Durham University said: "We are very sorry to learn of Sarah's death and the thoughts and prayers of the Durham University community are with her family and friends at this very sad time.
Travel advice on the Foreign Office's website warns the 22,000 British visitors to Ecuador each year that roads can be hazardous.
Mark Davison, the director of VentureCo, said any road travel in South America was "inherently risky" but it had used the bus company Reina del Camino for many years. The risk assessment for the trip had identified the High Andes, where the land frequently drops away dizzyingly from the roads, as the most dangerous areas for road travel but an accident in the coastal area was unusual.
"By the time you get to the coast the terrain is much more undulating, the roads are straighter and the roads are newer. It's most unexpected to have an accident there. This was an Ecuadorian driver who was reliable, and he was on the home run.
"I think it was just an unfortunate combination of circumstances. It is a tragic accident. A parent should never have to go through this. As a parent myself, my heart goes out to them."
The company has several other trips in South America and Mr Davison said he would ask participants whether they wished to continue or return home.Reuse content