CANICO, Portugal, (AFP): The Portuguese island of Madeira began three days of mourning on Thursday after 29 German tourists died when their bus spun off the road and tumbled down a slope before crashing into a house.
Drone footage showed the mangled wreckage resting precariously on its side against a building on a hillside near the town of Canico, the vehicle’s roof partially crushed and front window smashed.
Rescue workers attended to injured passengers on the grass where the bus came to a halt, some of them bearing bloodied head bandages and blood-stained clothes.
A woman who survived the accident said on the TVI television channel that the bus crashed after hitting a wall.
“It happened just after the bus started, one minute or a few seconds later. People were flying through the windows,” said the woman, whom the channel did not name.
“Some people were crying for help and we could immediately see some people were dead,” said her husband, who also survived the crash. “Help arrived very fast.”
Local authorities said most of the dead were aged in their 40s and 50s. Twelve men and 17 women were among the victims, an official at the Nelio Mendonca hospital, Tomasia Alves, told reporters.
They were among the more than one million tourists who visit the Atlantic islands off the coast of Morocco each year, attracted by their subtropical climate and rugged volcanic terrain.
“It is with sadness and dismay that I think of our compatriots and all the other people affected by the terrible bus accident in Madeira,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement.
“My sincere condolences go above all to those families that have lost loved ones in this tragedy,” she added, thanking the Portuguese emergency services for their efforts.
– Investigation launched –
The 50-odd tourists had left their hotel and were on their way to the regional capital Funchal for dinner when the bus crashed on Wednesday.
Local media said two Portuguese nationals survived the crash: the driver and a tour guide.
Prosecutors have opened a probe. The vice-president of the regional government Pedro Calado said it was “premature” to attribute the cause of the accident.
He said the bus was five years old and had been recently inspected.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he will travel to Madeira on Thursday with a team of doctors and psychologists to “speak personally with those affected”.
“It is shocking that an Easter holiday has become a tragedy for so many people,” Maas said in a statement.
The injured were “in a state of shock, with memories of terrible images. An injured woman said she had lost her partner,” Ilse Everlien Berardo, the pastor at the German Evangelical church in Madeira, told Germany’s RTL network.
He said local authorities were trying to find people on the island who speak German.
“Even though the doctors and nurses are tending to the injured with great care and compassion, it’s important for the injured to hear their mother tongue,” he said.
– Makeshift morgue –
A makeshift morgue has been set up at the airport in Funchal, local media reports said. Medical teams will be flown in from Lisbon to carry out autopsies.
German holidaymakers were the second largest group after British tourists to visit Madeira in 2017, according to Madeira’s tourism office.
Known as the Pearl of the Atlantic and the Floating Garden, Madeira is home to just 270,000 inhabitants.
“I express the sorrow and solidarity of all the Portuguese people in this tragic moment, and especially for the families of the victims who I have been told were all German,” President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa told Portuguese television.
Alves said the hospital hoped to begin returning victims’ bodies to their families by Saturday.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa said he had contacted Merkel to convey his condolences. He expressed “profound sadness”, in a message on the government’s Twitter page.
The last serious bus accident in Madeira occurred in December 2005, killing five Italian tourists in Sao Vicente.
(Rescue workers helped survivors at the crash site. Photo: AFP)
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