Driver in French coach crash may have fallen asleep

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The Independent Online

The driver of a coach which crashed in central France, killing a British teenager and seriously injuring four other passengers, may have fallen asleep at the wheel, police said.

The driver of a coach which crashed in central France, killing a British teenager and seriously injuring four other passengers, may have fallen asleep at the wheel, police said.

No other vehicle was involved in the accident, which happened early yesterday morning. French detectives were questioning the driver, from Rennies, a Dunfermline coach company, last night.

Most of the 38 youngsters and eight adults on board were asleep at the time, so it remains a mystery why the coach, taking the children for a week-long adventure holiday in the south of France, careered off the road and flipped on to its side.

The accident happened at around 6.25am local time (5.25am British time) on the A71 motorway near the village of Vierzon, 100 miles south of Paris, as the coach was making its way to Brive-la-Gaillarde in the Dordogne.

It was carrying two parties of children aged between 13 and 18, from Chadwell Heath Foundation School in Romford, east London, and the 41st Edinburgh Boys Brigade. All were to spend a week enjoying white-water rafting, canoeing and assault courses with PGL Travel, a Herefordshire-based company which specialises in organising school trips.

The dead child was Craig Norsworthy, 15, a Boys Brigade member from Edinburgh. His parents, Stephen and Ida, said: "He was a happy go lucky lad. A cheeky wee laddie in the best sense of the word. He had the cheekiest smile, the same one he had as a baby."

Several other children suffered serious injuries, among them Ross Buckmaster, 15, of East London, who was said by police to have neck and spinal injuries. Surgeons fear that he will never walk again.

A teenage girl from Romford had serious facial injuries from broken glass and George Sim, 42, a Boys Brigade captain, had serious leg injuries. In all, 11 people were hurt.

A French police spokesman at the scene said: "The coach was in perfect working order as far as we know. The possibility the driver fell asleep at the wheel is being investigated. He is being interviewed. Luckily, everyone on board was wearing seatbelts. Otherwise, the deaths and injuries could have been far higher."

James Marshall, 12, a Boys Brigade member, said: "We were asleep when a loud bang woke us up as the coach was sliding into a ditch. There was broken glass everywhere and plants coming in through the windows."

Alan Meikle, 23, a Boys Brigade captain, said the first thing he heard was the sound of screeching brakes. "Suddenly the coach's left side lurched up and it landed on its right side and skidded along the road and down a verge," he said. "All the windows shattered and there was mass panic.

"When the coach stopped, everyone began clambering to get out of the door. It was the people sitting at the back who came off worst. I am devastated at what has happened and we are in shock that one of our members has died."

A spokesman for Rennies said the coach had left Edinburgh at 9am on Sunday with the 21 Boys Brigade members and six staff before stopping at Luton, where the driver was replaced by two Scottish drivers who had flown south the previous evening. They picked up 19 pupils and staff in Romford before continuing to Dover for a night ferry to Calais. The drivers then drove in relay through the night, stopping briefly north of Paris.

Within 10 minutes of the crash, 24 emergency vehicles were at the scene ferrying the injured to hospital. Two boys spent three hours crushed between their seats and the side of the coach before they were rescued.

Those not physically injured were taken to a crisis centre at a municipal exhibition hall in Vierzon where psychologists counselled them. Stuart Gregson, the British Consul General, who arrived at the scene from Paris, said: "They are all deeply traumatised by their ordeal."

A group of 35 unhurt or slightly injured passengers boarded a coach for Paris in the afternoon and were to fly back to Britain last night. Others are expected to follow today. The parents of the worst injured flew to France to be with their children.

The French authorities said a judicial review of the crash had begun. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, offered French authorities assistance with their inquiry.

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