A bus carrying tourists to North Macedonia crashed and caught fire Tuesday morning in western Bulgaria, killing at least 45 people, including a dozen children, authorities said. DNA tests were underway to identify the victims.
The bus apparently tore through a guardrail on a highway, although authorities said the cause was still under investigation. Photos taken shortly after the crash showed the vehicle engulfed in flames as plumes of thick, black smoke rose. Daylight revealed a scorched shell with all its windows blown out, sitting in the median. Part of the guardrail was lying in the road.
Seven survivors were hospitalized after the crash, which happened as a bus group was returning from a trip to Turkey. Twelve children were among the dead, according to North Macedonia’s chief prosecutor, Ljubomir Joveski.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov told reporters at the crash site that he had “never in my life seen anything so horrible” and that the identification process would take time. weather.
“People who were on the bus are turned into charcoal,” Rashkov said. “There were four buses traveling together, and it is possible that passengers changed buses during the stops.”
Borislav Sarafov, head of the Bulgarian National Investigation Service, confirmed that 52 people were on the crashed bus.
Among the survivors were five North Macedonian citizens, one Serb and one Belgian, according to North Macedonia’s Foreign Ministry. Albanian Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka said almost all of the dead were ethnic Albanians, but it was unclear whether they were also citizens of North Macedonia.
Blagoj Bocvarski, North Macedonia’s transport minister, told reporters in the capital Skopje on Tuesday that authorities have started proceedings to revoke the transport license of the travel agency that owns the bus. He said the company had four buses licensed to carry passengers internationally, but for the bus involved in the crash “there was no record at the ministry that it had the licence”.
News of the accident hit the small Balkan country of 2 million people hard. The government of North Macedonia observed a minute of silence on Tuesday and declared three days of mourning. Flags will be lowered and all public events will be cancelled. The country’s prime minister visited Bulgaria, as did its chief prosecutor, who visited the crash site.
Azem Sadiki, mayor of Studenicani municipality near Skopje, told reporters that 20 of the crash victims were local residents. He said the dead included a mother and her four children as well as the woman’s sister and her two children.
“We are very sad. This is a huge loss for all of us and for the whole country,” Sadiki said.
Outside the government building in Skopje, Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani told The Associated Press that authorities are “doing their best to identify the victims as soon as possible”.
“Victim identification has begun,” he said. “The autopsy and also the DNA identification, because for some of the victims that’s the only way to identify them.”
Osmani added: “Two things are important for us now, firstly the identification to finish as soon as possible, and secondly, to find the cause of the accident.”
The country’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who visited the survivors in hospital, told Bulgarian broadcaster bTV that one of them said he was woken up by an explosion.
Earlier in Skopje, relatives gathered outside the travel agency that allegedly organized the trip, but the office appeared to be closed.
“Now we are waiting for bad news,” a distraught Bekim Aliti told reporters outside the building. He said his wife and his brother’s wife were on the trip.
Eldin Shiroki said his cousin was a tour guide for the company. “We still don’t have precise information – so we are waiting,” he said.
In 2019, Bulgaria had the second highest road fatality rate in the European Union of 27, with 89 people killed per million, according to European Commission data.
“Hopefully we will learn from this tragic incident and can prevent such incidents in the future,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Stefan Yanev said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed her condolences to the families and friends of those who died and said “in these terrible times, Europe stands with you”.
In response to the fatal accident, the Bulgarian government declared Wednesday a national day of mourning for the victims of the bus. The occasion will also mark the death of nine people who died in a fire at a nursing home on Monday in the village of Royak in eastern Bulgaria.
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