'We've lost a generation. Part of us has been sawn off'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

John Lichfield visits the Belgian town where the loss of 22 children, including one British boy, in a coach crash is slowly sinking in

In front of St Joseph's church in Kolonie-Lommel there is a war memorial which calls on passers-by to “remember forever” the “children of this village” who were killed in the 1914-18 war. Twenty yards to the left, outside the neat, low buildings of the Stekske elementary school, another memorial grew like weed yesterday: a 40-yard-long carpet of flowers, balloons, children's drawings, poems, candles and teddy bears.

One drawing showed a five-year-old's sketch of mountains and a shattered bus, surrounded by 15 names. "Nicolas, Amy, Emily, Bart, Joren, Luc, Eline, Emma, Roma, Emma, Michiel, Ilana, Kevin, Cor, Jennifer ... We zullen jullie missen [We will miss you all]," the drawing said.

Kolonie-Lommel, a neat, wooded, suburban village of 3,000 people, running along the Belgian-Dutch border, has once again been left to mourn a lost generation of children. This time, fate has dealt the village an even more savage blow than the ravages of war.

There are 10 names on the 1914-18 war memorial. Of the 22 children aged 11 and 12 killed in a coach crash in Switzerland on Tuesday night, 15 came from a single class, Class 6, at Stekske. The seven other members of the class were injured, and two staff were killed. "To lose almost a whole class, a whole generation of kids who grew up together in this school and in the streets and lanes around here, is incomprehensible," said Mark, a 36-year-old Dutch engineer, whose two children added colourful drawings to the pile beside the school railings yesterday.

"Many of the families here are Dutch, like me, who have crossed the border for better, or cheaper, houses. But, whether Belgian or Dutch, this is a very tight, very friendly community and this is a very friendly school. Even if we had no loved ones on the coach, it is like part of ourselves has been sawn away."

All the older children at Stekske have to adopt an official friend, or "buddy", from the younger classes. Mark's six-year-old son, Jesse, lost his much-loved 12-year-old "buddy" in the still unexplained crash near Sierre, in the Swiss Alps. "The youngest children, like Jesse, haven't really grasped the meaning yet," Mark said. "To them, it as if Class 6 is still away on its ski holiday. For the adults, for the parents especially, the pain, the real pain, is just starting."

Belgium, a much divided country, was united, at least briefly, in its grief yesterday for the 28 victims of the Sierre disaster. The entire nation, Flemings and Walloons, Dutch-speakers and French-speakers, natives and immigrants, paused for one minute at 11am to remember the dead.

Outside the town hall in the main town of Lommel, six miles south of Kolonie-Lommel, 200 people, including town hall staff and passers-by, held hands in a silent line. Several of the women wore Islamic headscarves. When the silence ended, Frank, a 43-year-old Dutch-speaker, gave an interview in halting, tearful French to a Belgian francophone TV crew. "It is almost impossible to find something that brings Belgium together, but this terrible accident has done that," he said. "Maybe, who knows, it may do us some good."

The bodies of the 28 victims – 22 children, four teachers and two bus drivers – were flown home yesterday in two Belgian Air Force C-130 transport aircraft. Another 28 children were injured. All returned on Thursday or yesterday, except for four who remain critically ill in hospitals in Switzerland. Seven of the dead children came from a second primary school, Sint-Lambertus at Heverlee, near Louvain. One was named yesterday as Sebastian Bowles, 11, who was half-British and half-Belgian. His family moved to Louvain from Crouch End in north London two years ago.

The ski holiday or "snow class" for children in the final year of primary school is a long tradition in France and Belgium: a kind of rite of passage to secondary school. The cause of the coach disaster, as the two school groups started their journey home on Tuesday, remains a mystery. The brand new coach collided head-on with a wall in a safety-area within a motorway tunnel.

Motorway cameras indicate that the coach was travelling at no more than 70kph, well within the speed limit. No other vehicle was involved. There have been reports that some of the surviving children had seen the driver trying to fit a disc into a DVD player just before the crash. These reports, implying that the driver might have lost control while fitting the disc, were all but dismissed by Swiss authorities yesterday. They pointed out that the coach was split-level and that passengers therefore could not easily see the driver. No trace of alcohol was found in the driver's blood and a post mortem uncovered no signs of a heart attack.

The sprawling town of Lommel, population 30,000, has been stunned by the disaster. Mieke Rimboldt, 50, who came to pay her respects outside the school yesterday, said: "This is a very mixed community, Belgians and Dutch and some Germans, but it is a young population, with lots of kids. Everyone here is suffering as if these poor children were from our own family, though none of us can imagine what the parents are suffering." Lommel was originally a hardscrabble glass-making town. Some of the most elaborate and specialised glass in the world is still made here. In recent years, the area has become more prosperous and suburban as young Dutch families have crossed the border from Eindhoven in search of better homes and bigger gardens.

Kolonie-Lommel, the part of the town nearest to the border, is 40 per cent populated by emigrants from the Netherlands. Of the 15 local children killed in Switzerland, nine were Belgian and six were Dutch. The website of Stekske school boasts its ability to make children from all backgrounds feel at home (stekske in colloquial Dutch or Flemish means, roughly speaking, "little stake" or "little piece of territory").

"Stekske is a school where we do everything to make you feel good," the website says. "A kindergarten and a primary school where every child gets what it deserves, where each child can find his stek. Your own space, your own place. A Stekske for everyone!"

Mark, the Dutch engineer, said: "This is a wonderful school and village. I came here from the Netherlands because I feel freer here. There's more space, more trees. People are friendlier. Every time I cross the border coming home from work, I feel I'm going on holiday. All of that makes this disaster more painful. But it will also, I hope, help us to recover as a community, even if nothing can help a parent who has lost a child."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Convicted art fraudster John Myatt
art

News
people

Life and Style
fashion

News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
Life and Style
Passing on: George Washington died alert, aware and in his own bed. This is the kind of of death most people would like to have
health
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tv
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Financial Sales Executives

£19000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to our clients continuing s...

Recruitment Genius: Tyre Technician / Mechanic

£15000 - £16800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Tyre Technician / Mechanic is...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Internal Sales - Technical Solutions - £26,000 Basic

£26000 per annum: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Reading , Southend, Aldershot, Luto...

Recruitment Genius: Senior SEO Manager - £30,000 - Manchester City Centre

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This forward-thinking agency works with ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game