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Sobbing families identify Swiss bus crash victims

Switzerland Bus Crash

First Posted: 03/15/2012 12:10 pm Updated: 03/15/2012 1:30 pm

SIERRE, Switzerland (AP) — Relatives of the 28 people killed when a bus from Belgium crashed inside a Swiss tunnel faced a heartbreaking task Thursday: identifying the bodies ahead of their repatriation. Most of the dead were children.

Family members, some sobbing, were driven from a hotel in the southern Swiss town of Sion to the nearby morgue, where the bodies of some of the 22 schoolchildren and six adults killed in Tuesday's crash were being kept.

"Where possible, the bodies will be shown to the families," police spokesman Jean-Marie Bornet told The Associated Press. "In some cases this is not possible because the bodies are too badly injured."

Afterward, relatives visited the site of the crash inside the Tunnel de Geronde near the Swiss town of Sierre. An AP reporter saw family members carrying flowers to the site where 21 Belgians and seven Dutch were killed.

Preparations also were being made to fly some of the families of the victims from Geneva back home to Belgium on Thursday night.

The tourist bus carrying 52 people hit a wall Tuesday night less than an hour after heading home from a ski vacation in the Swiss Alps. Twenty-four other children were hurt, some seriously.

Bornet said authorities were working to release the bodies of all the victims as soon as possible. Some still had to be identified.

In Belgium, plans were being made to begin repatriating the bodies with military planes as early as Thursday evening, and authorities announced that Friday would be a national day of mourning.

In Sion, Dr. Michael Callens said Thursday that the 14 children in the city's hospital were "doing well" and should be able to be repatriated to Belgium soon. "We don't know if it's going to be tomorrow or the day after," he told the AP.

But he said it would take longer for the four other children who were more badly injured and are being treated at hospitals in Lausanne and Bern to be returned home.

Investigations are under way to determine how a modern bus with two rested drivers and a tunnel considered safe could result in one of the deadliest highway crashes in Swiss history.

Olivier Elsig, prosecutor for the Swiss state of Valais, told a news conference Wednesday that officials are looking at three possible causes — a technical problem with the bus, a health problem with the driver or human error.

Swiss and Belgian media reported Thursday that survivors of the crash claimed the driver had reached to change a DVD on the onboard entertainment system shortly before the crash. It was unclear whether that could have contributed to the crash, and neither police nor prosecutors could immediately be reached for comment on the report.

In Sierre, locals expressed their shock at the tragedy.

"I am very sad, because I have children and today I awoke with them and I think very strongly about these people because it's really very hard," said Genevieve Romailler, a pharmacist.

"It's very hard to come to terms with this kind of situation. Even if we didn't know these young victims, we are really taking this to heart and we really moved by this tragedy," said barman Franck Bartolucci.

A Catholic chapel in Sierre was opened to allow the public to pay their respects to the victims, and a memorial mass was planned for Thursday evening at the town's Holy Cross church.

The Vatican conveyed its condolences to Belgium's Archbishop Andre-Mutien Leonard.

Pope Benedict XVI was praying for the mourning families and had conferred a special blessing on all affected, the Vatican statement said, and he wished to express his "profound sympathy" to the injured and their families and his sense of "closeness" to the rescue workers.

____

Jeffrey Schaeffer in Sierre, Switzerland, Nicolas Garriga in Sion, Switzerland, Don Melvin and Raf Casert in Brussels, John Heilprin in Geneva and Victor L. Simpson in Rome contributed to this report.

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The wreckage of a tourist bus from Belgium is seen at a hangar of the maintenance center of the motorway A9, in Sierre, western Switzerland, Wednesday, March 14, 2012. The bus carrying Belgian students returning from a ski holiday crashed into a wall in a Swiss tunnel, killing 22 Belgian 12-year-olds and six adults, police said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Keystone, Laurent Gillieron)

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