Belgium holds day of mourning for crash victims

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By RAF CASERT, Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium held a national day of mourning Friday for the 28 victims of a school bus crash in Switzerland, ringing church bells and stopping trains and factories to show soldiarity with heartbroken parents.

Swiss authorities, meanwhile, investigated whether the design of the tunnel contributed to the disaster.

Solemn music filled the airwaves in Belgium and official buildings dropped their flags to half staff. At 11 a.m, the nation of 11 million held a minute of silence to mark Tuesday's crash, which killed 22 children returning from "snow classes" in the Alps — a traditional rite of passage in Belgium from childhood to the teenage years.

Six adults on the bus — teachers, drivers and ski monitors — also died, and 24 students were injured in the crash.

Three days of national shock turned into heart-wrenching sorrow. Trains and subways stopped in their tracks for the tribute, political leaders stood united in silence, factory workers dropped their tools and Belgian churches slowly chimed bells in unison.

Around noon, a long line of black hearses left a Brussels military airport to take the victims back to their hometowns.

Flags were lowered over the Belgian parliament and in the Netherlands too. Six Dutch kids, who attended school just across the border in Belgium, were among the dead.

"You hand over your child for a school trip and you always have the fear about a safe return," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. "And in this case, we have this terrible outcome."

"We share this sorrow," Rutte said. "We have victims, and it totally doesn't matter what passport the children or their parents have."

The tourist bus carrying 52 people crashed head-on into a wall inside a tunnel as it headed home from a ski vacation in the Swiss Alps.

Olivier Elsig, prosecutor for the Swiss canton of Valais, said the crash is being investigated for three possible causes — a technical problem with the bus, a health problem with the driver or human error. Investigators have so far determined it was a modern bus with two rested drivers and said the tunnel was considered safe.

But the Switzerland Federal Office for Roads said Friday it was examining whether the angle of the wall that the bus hit contributed to the severity of the crash. That part of the tunnel had a cutout for disabled vehicles, which meant part of the wall was at a right angle to the tunnel road.

"In principle there is the possibility of slanting the angle of the bay, or protecting it with concrete or other elements," spokesman Michael Mueller told The Associated Press.

But he cautioned that modifying the design of tunnel safety bays to better protect buses could have unintended effects for other vehicles, such as cars and motorbikes.

The tunnel where the crash occurred opened in 1999 and the German automobile club ADAC gave it the second-best of six ranking levels in 2005.

"Such a severe and tragic accident must always be taken as an opportunity to analyze the factors that could have influence the causes and effects of the disaster," said Mueller.

Many bodies were repatriated Thursday night and Swiss police said the remaining bodies were to fly home three Belgian military planes Friday. Several injured children were still in hospitals in Switzerland.

One of the dead students was British, though living in Belgium, according to the St. Lambertus School in Heverlee, Belgium.

All EU flags hung at half staff along the EU Commission headquarters to mark the occasion.

At the KBC bank, automatic teller machines read: "We are speechless. All of KBC shares in the sorrow in silence."

Broadcasters rescheduled their programming, with VTM postponing the live finale of its popular singing contest "The Voice of Flanders" for a day.

Special ceremonies were held at the two schools that shared the bus bringing pupils home from Switzerland. In Heverlee, the school gates were plastered with children's drawings about the tragedy. Primary school children stood in silence before releasing white balloons up in the sky.

On Thursday evening, hundreds packed the Holy Cross Church in Sierre, the city in southern Switzerland where the crash took place, for a memorial Mass.

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John Heilprin and Frank Jordans in Geneva, Jeffrey Schaeffer in Sion, Switzerland and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this story.

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