Belgians were in mourning yesterday after 22 children died in a bus crash in Switzerland, with newspapers bemoaning the national tragedy.
“Belgium Weeps for its Children,” read the headline in the French-language newspaper la Derniere Heure as people called into morning radio shows to express their sorrow over the accident in a Swiss tunnel late on Tuesday.
“State of Shock,” blared the newspaper Le Soir in a dark front page with a picture of the tunnel, summing up the general mood as relatives of the victims, who included six adults, arrived at a Swiss morgue yesterday to identify the bodies.
Recalling that the children had posted cheerful messages on a blog about their ski trip in the Swiss Alps, Le Soir’s editorial said: “We have all awaited such messages anxiously at one time after seeing our children board a bus or a train for their beautiful trip.”
Newspapers in the Flemish region of Belgium, home to the two Catholic schools that the 11- and 12-year-old children attended, dedicated dozens of pages to the tragedy.
The daily De Morgen said: “There is no satisfactory answer to this question: why my child?”
The newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, describing the “Immense Sorrow,” published photos of the 28 dead and 24 injured people on its front page.
“A school ski trip is not supposed to end this way,” an editorial in the newspaper said.
An editorial De Standaard described it as the “worst nightmare” because it “touches us where we are most vulnerable: our children.”
Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said he could find no words of comfort for devastated relatives.
“When we lose an adult it’s dramatic, when we lose a child there are no words ... because the pain is so great that there is nothing to relieve the pain,” Di Rupo told a press conference in Sion, Switzerland, near the site of the disaster.
Forty-six children and four teachers from two Belgian schools were returning to Belgium from a skiing holiday when their coach slammed into a concrete wall in a motorway tunnel near the town of Sierre in the Swiss Alps.
The four teachers, two bus drivers and 22 of the children were killed in the impact that was so massive the entire front of the vehicle caved in like cardboard. The remaining 24 passengers, all children, were injured, some severely, and were being treated in four local hospitals.
“I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. But this was worse than anything you can imagine,” said Alain Rittiner, in charge of rescue operations who arrived at the scene some 20 minutes after the crash.
“The screams of children were the first thing we heard,” he said, saying rescuers were “stunned” by the cries before their instincts kicked in and they began emergency operations.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, although prosecutors have said that the driver was not speeding.
The coach had only just reached the motorway after a short descent along winding roads from the mountain ski resort, close to the Italian border.
Marianne Van Malderen, a Belgian motorist who arrived at the scene shortly after the crash, described children pinned under their seats or thrown towards the front of the coach.
“We did what we could to get out those who were unhurt,” but “it wasn’t possible to climb into the coach because its windows were so high up”, she said.
Belgium’s cabinet was to meet yesterday to examine the repatriation of the injured people.