Lommel: King Albert II and thousands of mourners attended a memorial service Wednesday for victims of last week's bus crash in a Swiss tunnel that killed 22 children and six adults.
Under a sparkling sky, soldiers in solemn procession bore 15 coffins into a 5,000-capacity hall — one brown casket containing the remains of a teacher, and 14 white ones, each containing the body of a 12-year-old schoolchild.
The students and the teacher were from one of two schools in northern Belgium that shared a bus for a traditional "snow class" vacation in Switzerland. They were returning from that exuberant holiday on March 13 when tragedy struck. Their bus, carrying 52 people back home, slammed into a tunnel wall. Beyond the dead, 24 children were injured. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.
"Is there something worse than parents who lose what they love most?" asked Lommel mayor Peter Vanvelthoven.
A separate service will be held Thursday for the victims from the other school, in the town of Heverlee.
Six of the victims were Dutch nationals, and King Albert II of Belgium was joined at the service by Dutch Crown Prince Willem Alexander, Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and his Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte.
The 15 coffins were lined up at the front of the hall for the hour-long ritual. The dignitaries walked over to the grieving families to try to give them some measure of comfort.
The "snow class" is a rite of passage from childhood to teenage years for countless Belgian children, and the contrast between the happiness of the trip and the horror of the crash has moved virtually everyone in this nation of 11 million.
At the service, families pinned red roses into the center of a giant heart of yellow roses as the famed Scala choir sang.
Three girls who were on the trip remain in Switzerland. They were badly injured, but they have regained consciousness and are out of immediate danger.
The crash near the Alpine town of Sierre was one of the worst road disasters in Swiss history.
First Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2012, 17:32