BRUSSELS/SION, Switzerland (Reuters) - Belgian military aircraft brought home the bodies of 22 children and six adults killed in a bus crash in Switzerland and the country observed a minute’s silence during a national day of mourning on Friday.
White coffins were loaded into two Hercules transport aircraft near the Swiss town of Sion and landed at a military airport near Brussels. A third plane returned with their belongings.
In factories, offices and schools, Belgians stood silent. Buses, trams and some trains also stopped for passengers to pay their respects to the victims, most of them 11 and 12 year olds returning from a school skiing trip.
“The grief is so intense, but this helps,” said one man from the town of Lommel, home to 17 of those killed.
Swiss police continued to investigate how the coach, carrying 52 passengers, crashed into a tunnel wall on Tuesday night.
Prosecutor Olivier Elsig cast doubt on reports in some Swiss and Belgian media that the driver had been busy loading a DVD player just before the crash.
“A dozen interviews with surviving children have been carried out, without any information providing pointing to a cause or causes of the accident,” he told a news conference.
“Regarding the theory of inattention due to a DVD being inserted, none of the those heard saw the driver doing anything like this.”
Investigators have established that no other vehicle was involved, that the bus was not speeding and that the driver had not drunk alcohol. Nor had he had a heart attack.
“Two hypotheses remain: something technical related to a defect in the vehicle or a human cause due to an error or a lack of attention,” Elsig said
In Brussels, officials at the European Commission and NATO headquarters paused to remember the dead and in Ghent, workers at the Volvo car plant downed tools while cathedral and church bells rang out across the country.
On Thursday evening, the little church of St Joseph’s in Lommel was swamped by 2,500 people who came to remember the 15 children and two school staff from the small town who had died.
The town plans a memorial ceremony on Wednesday, to be attended by members of the Belgian and Dutch royal families. Heverlee planned a joint funeral on Thursday for all seven child victims from the St Lambertus school there.
Flags were flown at half-mast on public buildings across Belgium, the Netherlands and the Swiss canton of Valais where the accident happened.
Six Dutch children were killed in the crash and four more were injured - Lommel is right by the Dutch border. Official British sources said one of the dead was an 11-year-old with joint Belgian-British nationality.
Of the survivors, six children with light injuries returned to Belgium on Thursday. Six specialized medical planes were due to bring a further 14 more seriously injured children back on Friday and four more will stay in Swiss hospitals, three of them described by a hospital official as in a ‘worrying’ state.
Writing by Emma Thomasson; Additional reporting by Michael Holden, Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Angus MacSwan