- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

GENEVA (AP) — A tour bus slammed into a tunnel wall in the Swiss Alps on Wednesday morning in a horrific accident that killed 22 Belgian 12-year-old students returning from a joyous ski vacation as well as the six adults who were accompanying them, police said Wednesday.

Another 24 students were hospitalized, Valais cantonal (state) police spokesman Jean-Marie Bornet told the Associated Press.

The bus carrying 52 people, including young students from two different Belgian schools, hit the tunnel wall shortly after 9 p.m. local time Tuesday (4 p.m. EDT) on the A9 highway near Sierre, Switzerland, in the southern canton of Valais, an area of popular ski resorts.

Authorities were still identifying all the victims, said Didier Reynders, the Belgian foreign minister. It was unclear exactly how the accident happened, he said.

“It is incomprehensible,” Reynders said.

Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo called it “an extremely sad day for all of Belgium.” He planned to fly to Switzerland on Wednesday, and the Belgian government was arranging planes to fly parents and relatives of the victims to the site, as well.

Police said the students had spent the last few days at a ski camp and were on their way back to the Belgian provinces of Brabant, Flanders and Limbourg.

While they were there, students at one school kept a blog that brimmed with enthusiasm.

“Today was totally the best,” one girl wrote. “The adventurous walk was tiring but mega-cool. We won first prize for cleanest room. Tomorrow it’s going to be colder. Byyyeeee!”

On day five of the vacation, a teacher posted a note meant to reassure parents back at home. “For now we do not see much homesickness,” the teacher wrote. “But from the reactions of the children we gather that they miss you a little bit.”

The bus was carrying students from two towns — Lommel, east of Antwerp, and Heverlee, near Leuven. In the tunnel, it veered, hit a curb, then rammed into a concrete wall, police said. The front of the bus was heavily damaged and appeared to be wedged against the wall, blocking people from getting out.

“The bus hit the barrier stones on the right side of the road. It then hit the tunnel wall front-on in an emergency stop space,” police said in a statement. “Because of the strong impact the bus was badly damaged and several passengers were trapped in the wreckage.”

Valais police chief Christian Varone told a news conference that rescuers were greeted by what he called “a scene like a war.”

“We have had a number of serious accidents in Valais but nothing like this, with so many young victims,” he said.

Initial indications are that no other vehicles were involved in the crash, which occurred in a stretch of tunnel where the speed limit was 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour).

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