A driver died and four people were critically injured when a coach carrying young Britons collided with a cliff-face and exploded into flames in the French Alps.
The vehicle, operated by the Brighton-based company SkiBound, apparently suffered brake failure at the foot of the notorious, twisting descent from Alpe d’Huez.
Eyewitnesses said that many of the 51 young passengers – seasonal ski-company employees returning to Britain – flung themselves from the shattered coach windows as the vehicle rapidly turned into a ball of fire. French police said that the dead man was a 64 year-old driver working for the Classic coach company based in Newcastle upon Tyne. The driver had shouted to warn passengers that he had a mechanical problem – possibly brake failure – before the coach missed a bend and collided head-on with the mountainside.
Four other people were critically injured in the crash, and are believed to be suffering from severe burns. They were evacuated from the scene by three helicopters. Another 22 people were being treated for less serious injuries last night at La Tronche hospital in Grenoble.
The coach, towing a trailer, careered off the road, colliding with a sheer cliff-face. The vehicle remained upright. According to one version of events, some passengers threw themselves clear before the coach hit the rocks. Others scrambled to safety. Three had to be cut from the wreckage.
The bus was on charter to the Brighton-based company, a specialist in organising school skiing trips. The passengers, believed to be in their early twenties, were SkiBound employees returning home at the end of the ski season.
Local officials said that the accident happened early this afternoon on the 21st hairpin bend, near the foot of the twisting descent from Alpe d’Huez. A police spokesman said that this was a comparatively safe spot on a notoriously dangerous road.
“All that we know is that no other vehicle was involved,” he said. “An investigation will tell us whether or not there was a mechanical fault.”
Jean Rampon, chief of staff to the Prefect of the Isère département (county), said that the passengers were all seasonal workers for SkiBound who had been collected from various resorts in the French Alps. He said that survivors had revealed that the driver shouted to warn that he had a problem a few seconds before the coach crashed.
The French Minister of Transport, Frédéric Cuvillier, was at the scene last night, chatting to survivors at the local fire station and visiting the injured in Grenoble.
A SkiBound spokesperson said: “A special assistance team from SkiBound is in place to provide support to those affected by the incident.
“An emergency telephone line has been set up for relatives and friends to call.
“Our thoughts are with those who have been involved in the accident, and their relatives. The names of any injured parties will not be released until all next of kin have been notified.”
On its website, the company says: “We’ve been around for 28 years and have bags of experience in organising successful school ski trips. Schoolteachers recognise SkiBound as the market leader in operating exclusive Clubhotels in France, and as school ski experts to North America and Italy, providing unrivalled service and the highest standards for health, safety and financial security.”
The sole descent from the mountain-top resort of Alpe d’Huez is one of the most celebrated – and feared – roads in France. It appears each year in the itinerary of the Tour de France cycle race.