26 Pilgrims Killed in France Bus Crash

A bus carrying Polish Catholic pilgrims from a holy site in the French Alps plunged off a steep mountain road, crashed into a river bank and burst into flames Sunday, killing 26 people, authorities said.

26 Pilgrims Killed in France Bus Crash
Fourteen others were seriously injured in the wreck on a dangerous stretch of road where past bus accidents have killed dozens of other people. Police said the bus did not have the special permit required to use the road.

Local residents said the bus missed a 90-degree bend in the steep mountain road around 9:30 a.m. near the village of Vizille, not far from the city of Grenoble. The bus plowed through a barrier and plunged 65 feet onto the banks of the La Romanche River, catching fire on impact, firefighters said.

"When the bus was burning, there were injured people inside," said Philippe Baret, owner of the field where the bus landed. "I saw at least six of them who were stuck inside the bus and burned to death before my very eyes."

He said he helped pull injured people and bodies out of the bus before it was engulfed by flames.

Victims were evacuated by helicopter to hospitals in Grenoble. Crews searched the river by helicopter and boat for passengers who might have been tossed out of the bus.

All that remained of the bus was its charred frame, with pieces strewn across the river bank.

In a 1973 crash on the same road, 43 pilgrims were killed, while 29 people died in a crash in 1976.

Buses are prohibited from using the 5-mile road -- which has a 7 percent grade -- without a special permit. The bus involved in Sunday's crash had no such permit, firefighters said.

Although it rained heavily Saturday night, it was warm and sunny Sunday and the road was dry.

"We can't manage to make this descent safe," Jean-Jacques Defaite, the mayor of the neighboring town of Laffrey, told LCI television.

Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Robert Szaniawski said the bus carried 50 people; French media reported between 50-60 people, who had returning from the shrine of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette, 25 miles south of Grenoble.

Ranging in age from 40-60, they had left Poland on July 10 for a two-week visit to famous sanctuaries in France, Spain, and Portugal, including shrines in Lourdes, France, and Fatima, Portugal, according Marcin Szklarski, president of Orlando Travel, the agency that organized the pilgrimage.

The bus, a 2000 Skania, passed safety checks three weeks ago in Germany, Szklarski said.

Three priests were on board the bus, said the Rev. Slawomir Zyga, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in the Polish city of Szczecin. One called the church in Szczecin after the accident.

"He said he was shaken up and bloody, but alive," Zyga told TVN24. "We have no information on the other two priests."

President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his condolences to his Polish counterpart, Lech Kaczynski.

"During this ordeal, you have the solidarity of the French people," Sarkozy said.

Kaczynski was flying to visit the accident site and Sarkozy planned to meet him at the Grenoble airport. The Polish government was organizing a flight for the victims' families from Szczecin to France on Monday morning.

A Holy Mass for the victims was to take place Sunday at the Szczecin cathedral, and another was to be held at Paris' Notre Dame cathedral.

French Deputy Prime Minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, who is in charge of transportation, visited the site and has launched an investigation to determine the cause of the accident.

Nestled between Alpine peaks, the Sanctuary of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette is 5,900 feet above sea level. The complex, built where two children claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to them in 1846, draws Catholic pilgrims from around the world.

AP

Güncelleme Tarihi: 23 Temmuz 2007, 10:29
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