Bus crashes in Belgium; 11 dead

Sunday, December 21, 2003

HENSIES, Belgium -- A German bus swerved off a highway in Belgium, crashed against a concrete divider and caught fire Saturday, killing 11 people and injuring dozens.

The Paris-bound bus crashed on the Brussels-to-Paris highway near the French border, police said.

Most of the victims were college-age students who were trapped inside as the bus was consumed by flames. The initial death toll of 12 was lowered late Saturday to 11, said Eric Thiebaut, the mayor of the town of Hensies.

He said an American was among those killed, referring further questions about the American to the U.S. Embassy in Brussels. A spokesman there could not immediately be reached.

The nationalities of other victims was still being established, Thiebaut said. Many of the passengers were from the Balkans and former Soviet republics.

It was initially thought that eight of the dead were Russians but a passenger list later revealed no Russians were killed, embassy spokesman Oleg Tsatsurin said.

Officials said the bus driver was among the dead, and his relief driver was among 37 people injured, five of whom were hospitalized.

The bus left the southern German city of Munich Friday night carrying mostly young tourists headed to Paris for the weekend. The accident happened about 5 a.m.

German Transport Minister Manfred Stolpe, who visited the scene, said human error appeared to be a factor.

Rainbow Tours, which organized the trip, said there did not appear to be any mechanical problems with the bus, built less than two years ago. The Hamburg, Germany-based company quoted witnesses as saying the driver lost control "from causes still unknown" and hit the concrete divider.

Witnesses told the Belgian news agency Belga that a relief driver opened a rear door and helped several people escape.

Belgian Prince Philip and Interior Minister Patrick Dewael visited the site Saturday.

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