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Death toll from French school bus crash rises to six

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the process of identifying the victims was “extremely difficult”.

Image: Beracassat Eric/ABACA - File Image

Updated: 12.50pm

THE DEATH TOLL from a crash between a school bus and a train in southern France rose to six  as two 11-year-old girls succumbed to their injuries, a police source said.

Four teenagers had died on Thursday in the accident at a level crossing in Millas, a village near the city of Perpignan. Eighteen others were injured, 14 of them children.

Authorities are investigating whether human error or a technical fault was to blame for one of the worst accidents involving a school bus in France for 30 years.

The impact ripped the bus in half and forced the train off the tracks.

Investigators only finished identifying the dead overnight due to the severity of their injuries, with the mayor of the neighbouring village describing the scene as “a vision of horror”.

The female driver of the bus was among the injured and has not yet been questioned, but Perpignan prosecutor Jean-Jacques Fagni said investigators had spoken to the train driver.

It is unclear whether the automatic barriers at the crossing were open at the time of the crash, though national rail operator SNCF said that “according to witnesses, the level crossing was functioning normally”.

Around 95 emergency workers, backed by four helicopters, were deployed as part of the rescue effort. The crash site was cordoned off to the media.

‘War scene’ 

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who flew to Millas by helicopter, said the process of identifying the victims was “extremely difficult”.

Twenty four people were caught up in the accident, including 20 children aged from 13 to 17, said Philippe.

The prime minister confirmed four deaths and said 11 of the injured were in critical condition with another nine in serious conditions in hospitals in the region.

“The priority at this stage is to be able to give precise information to the families,” Philippe said.

Speaking to reporters, local prosecutor Jean-Jacques Fagni said the four dead children had yet to be identified while local governor Philippe Vignes described “a real war scene”.

The local L’Independant paper cited one of the rail passengers, named only as Barbara, as saying the impact “was very powerful and we thought the train was going to derail”.

The reason for the collision was unclear but an enquiry into “involuntary homicide” was swiftly opened.

A source close to the enquiry said witness questioning was underway and the drivers of the bus and train would be tested for alcohol and drugs.

‘Vision of horror’ 

Robert Olive, mayor of neighbouring Saint-Feliu-d’Amont, Robert Olive, described the scene as a “vision of horror”.

“The coach was really cut in two by the train as it passed,” he added.

The families of the children rushed to the scene to try to get news of their loves ones, an AFP reporter at the scene witnessed.

President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “All my thoughts for the victims of this terrible accident involving a school bus, as well as their families. The state is fully mobilised to help them.”

Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne and SNCF head Guillaume Pepy were also made their way to the accident site.

“It’s a terrible event,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said, expressing “profound sadness”.

The security department for the Pyrenees area, where the collision took place, said the accident involved a train travelling west from Perpignan to the town of Villefranche de Conflent.

A medical-psychological aid centre was set up in Millas.

The accident is the third involving several fatalities on French railways in the past four years.

In 2015, a high-speed TGV train being tested on a stretch of the line between Paris and the eastern city of Strasbourg derailed after hitting a bridge at 243 kilometres-per-hour, killing 11 people onboard.

In 2013, seven people were killed when a commuter train slammed into a station south of Paris. A signalling defect was blamed for that crash.

© AFP 2017

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