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Sobbing families identify Swiss bus crash victims

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A woman looks at paintings at the entrance gate of the Sint Lambertus school as she lays flowers, in Heverlee, Belgium, Thursday, March 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)
A woman looks at paintings at the entrance gate of the Sint Lambertus school as she lays flowers, in Heverlee, Belgium, Thursday, March 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

SIERRE, Switzerland (AP) — Relatives of the 28 people killed when a bus from Belgium crashed inside a Swiss tunnel endured a heartbreaking task Thursday: identifying the bodies of their loved ones 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. The fatalities included the two drivers aboard the bus.

"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. AP reporters saw family members carrying flowers to the site where 21 Belgians and seven Dutch were killed and later the bouquets that had been left inside the tunnel.

Christian Varone, police commander for the Swiss canton (state) of Valais, led families to the site Thursday.

"They showed great dignity and courage," he told reporters afterward.

Some of the families of the victims flew back home to Belgium out of the Geneva airport on Thursday night. Separately, a plane carrying eight of the more lightly wounded children who had been released from hospital and their relatives also returned to Belgium.

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. The cause of the crash is unknown and being investigated.

Inside the tunnel, reporters were led to the crash site — about 1 kilometer (O.6 miles) after the entrance to the 2.5-kilometer (1.5 miles) tunnel — where relatives had laid flowers in front of the wall that the bus had hit head-on.

Bornet said authorities were working to release the bodies of all 28 victims as soon as possible, after the identification process for all was completed.

In Belgium, plans were being made to begin repatriating the bodies with three military planes on Friday. Authorities announced that Friday would also be a national day of mourning.

Florence Renggli, a spokeswoman for hospitals in Valais, said doctors performed 50 operations on 16 children.

She said eight of the children have now been released, leaving 12 children still in the Sion area. Three others who were more seriously injured were transferred to a hospital in Lausanne, and one was taken to a hospital in Bern.

In Sion, Dr. Michael Callens said Thursday the children in the hospital there 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 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 canton 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.

Varone, who was asked repeatedly by reporters Thursday about the DVD theory, declined to address the question directly. But he said that no line of inquiry was being excluded or made a priority.

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.

In the evening, hundreds of locals, young and old, packed the Holy Cross Church for a memorial Mass held by the Bishop of Valais Norbert Brunner. The church fell silent as the bishop presided over prayers for the dead and invoked the Catholic creed that they would be resurrected.

At the entrance, on top of a basin holding consecrated water, was a child's drawing depicting hearts and candles.

____

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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Filed by Ryan Craggs