Catholic pilgrims killed in bus crash

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The Independent Online

A bus transporting Polish pilgrims from a holy site in the French Alps plunged off a steep mountain road, crashed into a river bank and burst into flames yesterday, killing 26 people, authorities said.

Fourteen others were seriously injured in the disaster, which occurred at about 9.30am near the village of Vizille, not far from Grenoble, officials from the prefecture of the Isere region said.

Residents of Notre-Dame-de-Mesage, a nearby town, said the bus missed a 90-degree bend in the steep mountain road. The bus ploughed through a barrier and plunged about 65 feet onto the banks of the La Romanche River, bursting into flames on impact, firefighters said.

"When the bus was burning, there were injured people inside," said Philippe Baret, owner of the field where the bus landed. "I saw at least six of them who were stuck inside the bus and burned to death before my very eyes."

He said he helped pull injured people and bodies out of the bus before flames engulfed it.

Victims were evacuated by helicopter to hospitals in Grenoble. Crews searched the river by helicopter and boat for a handful of missing passengers.

All that remained of the bus was its charred frame, with pieces strewn across the river bank.

Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Robert Szaniawski said in Warsaw that there were 50 people on the bus; French media reported between 50-60 people on board.

The group was returning from the shrine of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette, about 25 miles south of Grenoble.

Most were in their 50s to 70s, but among them were three children - a 12-year-old and two 13-year-olds - and several pilgrims in their 20s and 30s, said Marcin Szklarski, president of Orlando Travel, the agency that organised the pilgrimage.

They left Poland on July 10 for a two-week visit to famous sanctuaries in France, Spain, and Portugal, including shrines in Lourdes, France, and Fatima, Portugal, he said in Skawina, Poland, outside Krakow.

Three priests also were on board the bus, said the Reverend Slawomir Zyga, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in Szczecin, Poland. One called the church after the accident.

"He said he was shaken up and bloody, but alive," Zyga told Poland's TVN24. "We have no information on the other two priests."

Most were from the Szczecin area in north-western Poland, near the German border, said the Reverend Ryszard Kaminski of St Nicholas Church in Szczecin.

President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his condolences to his Polish counterpart, Lech Kaczynski, in a letter.

"During this ordeal, you have the solidarity of the French people," Sarkozy said. The two leaders spoke by telephone following the crash, Sarkozy's office said.

Kaczynski was flying later today to France to visit the site of accident, spokesman Maciej Lopinski said. Sarkozy planned to meet Kaczynski at the Grenoble airport on Sunday, the French president's office said.

The Polish government was organising a flight for the victims' families from Szczecin to France that was expected to leave early Monday morning.

A Holy Mass was to take place today at a cathedral in Szczecin, Polish church officials said. Another Mass was to be held at Paris' Notre Dame cathedral, France Info radio reported.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and his deputy prime minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, who is in charge of transportation, visited the site. Borloo has launched an investigation to determine the exact causes of the accident.

Speaking at the crash site, Fillon said he was pained by the accident, which "hit young people and older people who were coming back from a pilgrimage and should never have died" in such a way.

The bus, a 2000 Scania, underwent technical checks three weeks ago in Germany. "The bus had passed its checks," said Szklarski, of the travel agency.

The mayor of the neighbouring town of Laffrey blamed the crash on the steep road.

"We can't manage to make this descent safe," Jean-Jacques Defaite told LCI television.

The road was the site of several other accidents involving buses. In a 1973 crash, 43 pilgrims were killed, while 29 people died in another crash three years later.

After that, buses were prohibited from using the 5-mile road - which has a 12 per cent gradient - without a special permit.

The bus involved in today's crash had no such permit, firefighters said.

Though it rained heavily on Saturday night, it was warm and sunny today and the road was dry.

Nestled between Alpine peaks, the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette is about 5,900 feet above sea level. The complex was built on the site where two children claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to them in 1846. It has since become an important pilgrimage site, drawing Catholics from around the world.