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03.14.12

Swiss Ski Trip’s Horrific End

In a tragic bus crash Tuesday night, 22 schoolchildren were killed along with six adults after returning from a ski trip in the Swiss Alps.

For parents, there is nothing quite as daunting as sending your child off on a long school trip. Their palpable excitement is often matched only by parents' fear and paranoia that something unthinkable will happen. Most of the time nothing goes wrong. But sometimes it does, like on Tuesday night when a bus carrying 52 people, including 46 12-year-olds who had just spent a week skiing in the Swiss Alps, crashed into a tunnel wall in Sierre, Switzerland, near the Swiss-Italian border.

The impact killed 22 children and six adults, including the two bus drivers who had planned to share the drive back to Belgium. Another 24 children were hospitalized, some with life-threatening injuries, including three children who are still in a comatose state. The bus had only been on the highway for about 40 minutes when the inexplicable crash occurred. The weather was perfect. There was minimal traffic. The road inside the tunnel was well-lit. Initial reports by Swiss police based on eyewitnesses say the bus was traveling at an excessive speed, though surveillance footage from inside the tunnel later showed otherwise, according to Olivier Elsig, the Swiss prosecutor who will be leading the probe into the cause of the accident.

Toxology tests were also ordered as part of autopsies of both drivers. “We will find out what happened,” Elsig promised at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, saying the focus was centered on a technical problem with the bus, a health problem with the driver, or human error.

Paramedics who reached the scene within a few minutes of the first emergency call assisted drivers who had stopped behind the wreck. They all described a horrific scene of mayhem with broken glass and children’s clothing strewn across the area. The front third of the large coach had smashed like an accordion into a cement pillar. Bloodied children were climbing out of the mangled wreck over the bodies of their dead friends. “It was completely silent. You could not even hear the children’s cries,” said Claude Peter, head of the rescue operation. “The children were in shock, walking around like zombies.”

More than 200 rescue workers worked at the scene for eight-plus hours, freeing the injured children from the wreckage. They were then airlifted to nearby hospitals in Lausanne and Berne. The children, who were from Belgium, Holland, and Germany, were in a three-bus caravan traveling home from a weeklong youth ski camp sponsored by a local Christian group in Belgium. The other two buses made it back to Belgium on Wednesday afternoon. Once the children in those two buses were identified, the remaining parents were flown to Sierre, Switzerland, in Belgian military jets, accompanied by the country’s prime minister, Elio DiRupo.

But because none of the children were carrying identification, many of the parents still have no idea if their children are alive. Many spent Wednesday being ferried between area hospitals and morgues in search of their children. "When a drama like this happens, when we lose a child or have a child suffering in hospital, there are no words,” said DiRupo. “It is important to console the families,"

For the parents who lost a child, the grieving process will be an unbearable journey, according to Nestor Lopez-Duran, Ph.D., an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Michigan and the editor of the online child-psychology portal Child-Psych. “Losing a close family member, especially a young child, is one of the most stressful life events that we can experience,” he told The Daily Beast. ”These families are currently experiencing unimaginable pain, and the coping journey is often long and difficult.”

“It was completely silent. You could not even hear the children’s cries,” said Claude Peter, head of the rescue operation. “The children were in shock, walking around like zombies.”

But accidents like this often have a ripple effect, making a profound impact on parents who aren’t even directly related to those involved. “Our world concept, our sense of safety and order, may be shaken be these events,” Lopez-Duran said. “Fear for the safety of our own children is a natural reaction. Soon after, our children will want to go outside and play, will ask to go on overnight school trips, and will be packing to go to summer camp. These normal events will surely produce some anxiety, but we must accept our fears while simultaneously accepting the fact that life goes on and that our children still need these experiences as part of their healthy development.”

One of the teachers who died in the crash, Frank Van Kerckhove, had set up a blog in Dutch to chronicle the trip to settle the nerves of the worried parents.  “This is our first blog posting,” he wrote one week ago after the group had arrived in the Swiss Alps. “The bus trip was very smooth. There was very little traffic. We watched the movie Avatar, and no one became car sick on the climb into the Alps.” Throughout the week, the children on the trip posted short notes about the food they ate and the adventures they had. Van Kerckhove’s last post went up on Monday night. “Tomorrow will be a busy day and I do not know if I can post anything. But on Wednesday we'll be back, all of us.”