A coach driver who drove into rocks and trees to avoid plunging over a precipice has been hailed a hero for saving the lives of more than 50 passengers.
The driver, named as Maurice Wrightson, was killed when the bus exploded after crashing through trees and slamming into a cliff-face.
Frédéric Cuvillier, the French Transport minister, visited the scene of the tragedy and praised the courage of the driver whom he said had “saved many lives”.
Initial investigations indicated that the driver shouted a warning to passengers that the brakes had failed, and then steered deliberately into trees and rocks in an attempt to slow the coach down rather than risk careering into a ravine.
The accident, on Tuesday afternoon, took place as the vehicle approached the last of 21 hairpin bends on the notorious mountain road leading down from the Alpe d'Huez ski resort.
“The driver showed remarkable courage. The witnesses all agree that his acts and his attitude meant a much heavier loss of life was avoided,” said Mr Cuvillier.
Marcus Beauchamp, whose brother Matthew was one of the passengers on the coach, said: “The driver saved everyone's life by steering into the tree rather than go over the edge. He was a hero.”
Some of the passengers were thrown clear as the vehicle crashed, and some are thought to have jumped before the vehicle, and the trailer it was pulling, came to a halt, but four people were seriously hurt and had to be dragged out of the burning coach. One of the most seriously injured was a 19-year-old woman who suffered 80 per cent burns.
Jean-Yves Coquillat, the Grenoble public prosecutor, told journalists that brake failure was a “very probable” factor in the accident.
Mr Wrightson, from Ashington, Northumberland, was at the controls of the Classic Coaches vehicle operated by TGM and was one of two drivers board, along with 51 passengers. He is thought to have been aged 63.
Heath Williams, the managing director, described the crash as it as a tragic accident and was reported as saying: “A number of passengers have sustained injuries and our thoughts are with them as they recover.
”Early indications are that our driver tried to take evasive action and that he alerted passengers. We pay tribute to him for his efforts, and also to our relief driver who helped people to leave the vehicle.“
The passengers included ski resort workers with Brighton-based SkiBound who were leaving at the end of the season.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said: ”Our thoughts are with those involved in the coach crash in Isere which has resulted in the death of a British National. We are providing consular support.
“We thank the French authorities, both local and national, and the emergency services for their efforts to help those affected.”