Verona (Italy) (AFP) - At least 16 people died when a coach bringing Hungarian teenagers home from a skiing trip crashed and burst into flames on a northern Italian motorway overnight, authorities said Saturday.
Emergency workers said that the bus carrying 56 people returning from France, most of them teenagers aged 14-16, as well as several teachers and two drivers, ploughed into a bridge pillar.
"At the moment, there are 16 confirmed deaths," said Verona traffic police chief Girolamo Lacquaniti.
The accident has deeply shaken Hungary where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has declared a national day of mourning to be observed on Monday to remember the victims.
The death toll from the tragedy near Verona at around 11:00 pm (2200 GMT) could have been much worse had it not been for the bravery and quick thinking of a teacher.
"Those who were seated at the back of the bus saved themselves by smashing the windows amid shouting and panic," Hungary's consul in Milan Judit Timaffy told Italian media.
"A gym teacher rescued lots of those on board by getting back on the bus. He was taken to hospital with serious burns on his back," Timaffy said.
The Italian police said 28 people were injured. Timaffy said two people were seriously injured, one of whom was placed in an artificial coma.
She added that by evening, six remained hospitalised, with two adults still in serious condition.
Photo: Italian state TV
All were being treated in nearby hospitals. Timaffy said psychiatrists were counselling the other teenagers who were in a state of shock.
Victims who were unharmed or had already been treated and released from hospital were taken to a hotel in Verona, where many of their families waited.
Some were slated to start returning to Hungary Saturday night and others are slated to leave on Sunday.
Describing a "devastating" scene, Lacquaniti -- fighting to hold back his tears -- told Radio Capitale that 13 passengers had managed to escape by jumping out.
Many of the teenagers refused to leave their friends, he said, adding: "No government service can adequately prepare for events like these."
A huge inferno very quickly engulfed the bus, dramatic pictures released by police showed, completely destroying the interior and reducing the vehicle to a burned-out wreck.
Once the blaze was put out emergency workers had to wait for a judge to give approval to comb through the smoking remains, which they then spent the rest of the night doing to establish the complete death toll.
Some passengers were killed when they were hurled from the coach on impact, but most of the victims were found badly charred inside the vehicle after being unable to escape in time.
Many of the bodies have yet to be identified at this time because they were so badly burnt.
Photo: Google Maps
- Time of mourning -
In Budapest, a black flag was hung at the teenagers' secondary school. People also came to lay flowers and candles outside of the Szinyei school, an AFP photographer said.
Timea Deutsch, 24, a former student, was one of the mourners.
"Even though I graduated from the school five years ago, I spent many happy years here," she said. "It's tragic. If there's a commemoration for the victims, I'll attend."
Balint Bolgar, 22, said he attended another school but has many friends at Szinyei.
"It's terrible," he said. "Incredible."
In a statement carried by state news agency MTI, Orban expressed his horror and shock.
"Losing children, young lives, is the worst thing for any family, community or nation," Orban said. "At this time of mourning I am praying and am with the families and loved ones of those affected by this tragedy."
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, fighting back tears, told a news conference in Budapest that "the Hungarian government will do everything necessary to ease the families' pain."
"These were children. It's the hardest thing to take. Everyone thinks of their own," Szijjarto said.
- Driver fell asleep? -
Traffic police in Italy were still gathering evidence and consulting video evidence so it was "still too early to determine the cause of this tragedy," Lacquaniti said.
He also said on radio that no other vehicle was involved, pointing to mechanical failure or human error such as the driver falling asleep.
"The coach was travelling at quite a constant speed and we haven't found any traces of braking," Lacquaniti said. The vehicle burst into flames "moments after the impact," he added.
Timaffy said that the drivers had changed over around an hour before the accident.
One of the drivers was among those killed, Italian media reported.
Italian authorities have impounded the coach to the parking garage of a motorway company in Verona.