Brussels: Belgium said it would hold a national day of mourning on Friday for 22 children and six adults killed in a bus crash in Switzerland, as parents of the victims and the first of the survivors headed home.
Of the 52 passengers on the bus, which was carrying school groups from the Belgian towns of Heverlee and Lommel home from a ski trip when it crashed into the wall of a tunnel on Tuesday night, only 24 survived. Some were still in critical condition on Thursday.
The bodies of the passengers killed, most of whom were about 12 years old, were all taken to the nearby Swiss town of Sion to be identified.
"The identification process is being carried out one family at a time, and this is, as you can imagine, a moment of intense pain which can take very long," Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo told a news conference.
Swiss authorities said identifying some victims was so difficult that additional DNA testing was required. However, by late on Thursday, all had been formally identified.
Di Rupo was among the ministers, lawmakers and schoolchildren who signed a book of condolence at the Belgian federal Parliament on Thursday.
The Belgian cabinet cancelled a meeting scheduled for Friday to mark the day of mourning. A minute of silence will be observed around the country at 11 am (1000 GMT) and flags flown at half-mast.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also ordered that Dutch flags on public buildings be flown at half-mast on Friday. Six Dutch children were killed in the crash and a further four were injured. The town of Lommel is right by the Dutch border.
Six children who survived with minor injuries were returning home on Thursday, Belgian authorities said. A Swiss hospital spokeswoman said a further two were also on their way.
Officials said other surviving children would be able to return home if Swiss doctors determined their condition was stable. Three children remained in a critical state.
Belgium provided a plane to bring back the parents of the children who died. Three Belgian military Hercules C130 planes arrived at Sion airport to fetch the bodies.
Swiss authorities were carrying out an autopsy on the bus drivers' bodies to see if they might yield clues to the cause of the accident.
Yves Mannaerts, director of the Belgian coach operators' association, told a news conference the drivers had had enough rest, having arrived in Switzerland on Monday evening. Neither had drunk alcohol, he added.
"There is no question of it. On that issue, the contact with the Swiss authorities has been clear - there was no problem," Mannaerts told a news conference.
He also said rumours that the drivers were retired truck drivers were not true. They were born in 1960 and 1977, he said.
Some Belgian and Swiss media ran reports that the driver had been occupied inserting a DVD just before the crash, saying this is what some surviving children had told their parents.
Olivier Elsig, the Valais prosecutor who is investigating the crash, cast doubt on this.
"A certain number of children were questioned and we took a series of statements. But they do not shed light on the cause. Personally I deeply doubt that if this did happen, that it could have played any role whatsoever," he told Swiss television.
Christian Varone, chief of police of the Swiss canton of Valais, where the accident took place, said there were many possible explanations of the crash and that police would take into account witness statements from surviving children.
First Published: Friday, March 16, 2012, 12:53