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Belgium holds day of mourning for crash victims

Published: Friday, March 16 2012 6:55 a.m. MDT

Officials from the European Council stand for one minute of silence at the EU Council building in Brussels on Friday, March 16, 2012. A coach accident in Switzerland left 28 dead, including 22 children from Belgium traveling home after a skiing holiday. Belgium holds a national day of mourning on Friday. (AP Photo) (The Associated Press) Officials from the European Council stand for one minute of silence at the EU Council building in Brussels on Friday, March 16, 2012. A coach accident in Switzerland left 28 dead, including 22 children from Belgium traveling home after a skiing holiday. Belgium holds a national day of mourning on Friday. (AP Photo) (The Associated Press)

BRUSSELS — Belgium held a day of national mourning Friday for the 28 people who died in a school bus crash in Switzerland while Swiss authorities investigated whether the design of the tunnel contributed to the disaster.

Solemn music filled the airwaves in Belgium and official buildings dropped their flags to half staff. At 11 a.m, the nation of 11 million held a minute of silence to mark Tuesday's crash, which killed 22 children returning from "snow classes" in the Alps — a traditional rite of passage in Belgium from childhood to the teenage years.

Six adults — teachers, drivers and ski monitors — also died.

Trains and subways stopped in their tracks for the tribute, culminating three days of shock that slowly turned to heart-wrenching sorrow. Political leaders stood united in silence, factory workers briefly dropped their tools before Belgian churches slowly chimed their bells in unison.

Police officers carry the coffin of one of the 28 victims of Sierre's bus crash into a Belgian military cargo aircraft at Sion airport, western Switzerland, Friday, March 16, 2012. Twenty-eight people, including 22 children, returning to Belgium from a skiing holiday died in a bus accident inside a tunnel in Sierre in the Swiss canton of Valais.  (Olivier Maire, Pool, Associated Press) Police officers carry the coffin of one of the 28 victims of Sierre's bus crash into a Belgian military cargo aircraft at Sion airport, western Switzerland, Friday, March 16, 2012. Twenty-eight people, including 22 children, returning to Belgium from a skiing holiday died in a bus accident inside a tunnel in Sierre in the Swiss canton of Valais. (Olivier Maire, Pool, Associated Press)

Around noon, a long line of black hearses left a Brussels military airport to take the victims back to their home towns.

Peter Van Velthoven, mayor of Lommel where 17 victims lived, said the parents had gone through the whole gamut of feelings since Tuesday's accident.

"It went from disbelief to fear for the worst. Then hope that their child might have survived. Anger because the uncertainty took so long and then the fatal news, with its despair," Van Velthoven said.

The tourist bus carrying 52 people crashed head-on into a wall inside a tunnel as it headed home from a ski vacation in the Swiss Alps.

Olivier Elsig, prosecutor for the Swiss canton of Valais, said the crash is being investigated for three possible causes — a technical problem with the bus, a health problem with the driver or human error.

A convoy of hearses carrying the remains of victims from the deadly bus crash, leaves the Brussels Military airport, Friday, March 16, 2012. A tour bus slammed into a tunnel wall in the Swiss Alps in a horrific accident that killed 22 12-year-old students returning from a ski vacation as well as the six adults who were accompanying them.  (Francois Walschaerts, Associated Press) A convoy of hearses carrying the remains of victims from the deadly bus crash, leaves the Brussels Military airport, Friday, March 16, 2012. A tour bus slammed into a tunnel wall in the Swiss Alps in a horrific accident that killed 22 12-year-old students returning from a ski vacation as well as the six adults who were accompanying them. (Francois Walschaerts, Associated Press)

Investigators have so far determined it was a modern bus with two rested drivers and said the tunnel was considered safe.

But the Switzerland Federal Office for Roads said Friday it was examining whether the angle of the wall that the bus hit contributed to the severity of the crash. That part of the tunnel had a cutout for disabled vehicles, which meant part of the wall was at a right angle to the tunnel road.

"In principle there is the possibility of slanting the angle of the bay, or protecting it with concrete or other elements," spokesman Michael Mueller told The Associated Press.

But he cautioned that modifying the design of tunnel safety bays to better protect buses could have unintended effects for other vehicles, such as cars and motorbikes.

The tunnel where the crash occurred opened in 1999 and the German automobile club ADAC gave it the second-best of six ranking levels in 2005.

One of two Belgian Hercules C-130 military cargo aircraft takes off heading for Belgium with victims of Sierre's bus crash, at Sion airport, western Switzerland, Friday, March 16, 2012. Twenty-eight people, including 22 children, returning to Belgium from a skiing holiday died in a bus accident inside a tunnel in Sierre in the Swiss canton of Valais.  (Keystone, Laurent Gillieron, Associated Press) One of two Belgian Hercules C-130 military cargo aircraft takes off heading for Belgium with victims of Sierre's bus crash, at Sion airport, western Switzerland, Friday, March 16, 2012. Twenty-eight people, including 22 children, returning to Belgium from a skiing holiday died in a bus accident inside a tunnel in Sierre in the Swiss canton of Valais. (Keystone, Laurent Gillieron, Associated Press)

"Such a severe and tragic accident must always be taken as an opportunity to analyze the factors that could have influence the causes and effects of the disaster," said Mueller.

Many of the bodies were repatriated Thursday night and Swiss police said the remaining bodies were to fly home three Belgian military planes Friday.

Flags were lowered over the Belgian royal palace and in the Netherlands, too, government buildings flew flags at half staff. Six Dutch were among the dead.

During the morning rush hour in Brussels, workmen hung a Dutch flag half-staff at the country's European Union representation. The six Dutch kids who died in the crash attended school just across the border in neighboring Belgium.

One of the dead students was British, though living in Belgium, according to the St. Lambertus School in Heverlee, Belgium.

People comfort one another after attending a ceremony of one minute of silence in remembrance of bus crash victims in front of the 't Stekske in Lommel, Belgium on Friday, March 16, 2012. A coach accident in Switzerland left 28 dead, including 22 children from Belgium traveling home after a skiing holiday. Belgium holds a national day of mourning on Friday.   (Virginia Mayo, Associated Press) People comfort one another after attending a ceremony of one minute of silence in remembrance of bus crash victims in front of the 't Stekske in Lommel, Belgium on Friday, March 16, 2012. A coach accident in Switzerland left 28 dead, including 22 children from Belgium traveling home after a skiing holiday. Belgium holds a national day of mourning on Friday. (Virginia Mayo, Associated Press)

All EU flags hung at half staff along the EU Commission headquarters to mark the occasion.

At the KBC bank, automatic teller machines read: "We are speechless. All of KBC shares in the sorrow in silence."

Broadcasters rescheduled their programming, with VTM postponing the live finale of its popular singing contest "The Voice of Flanders" for a day.

Special ceremonies were held at the two schools that shared the bus bringing pupils home from their ski holiday. In Heverlee, the school gates, plastered with children's drawings about the tragedy, opened for the primary school kids to stand in silence before releasing white balloons up in the sky.

On Thursday evening, hundreds packed the Holy Cross Church in Sierre, the city in southern Switzerland where the crash took place, for a memorial Mass.

A Swiss flag flies at half-mast on the government building in Bern, Switzerland, Friday, March 16, 2012, in remembrance of the 28 people, including 22 children, who died in a bus accident inside a tunnel in Sierre in the Swiss canton of Valais while returning from a skiing holiday to Belgium.  (Keystone, Peter Schneider, Associated Press) A Swiss flag flies at half-mast on the government building in Bern, Switzerland, Friday, March 16, 2012, in remembrance of the 28 people, including 22 children, who died in a bus accident inside a tunnel in Sierre in the Swiss canton of Valais while returning from a skiing holiday to Belgium. (Keystone, Peter Schneider, Associated Press)

John Heilprin and Frank Jordans in Geneva, Jeffrey Schaeffer in Sion, Switzerland and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this story.

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