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Bus crashes in France, killing 26 people

Police stood near the wreckage of a bus transporting Polish pilgrims from the French Alps after it crashed yesterday. Police stood near the wreckage of a bus transporting Polish pilgrims from the French Alps after it crashed yesterday. (Thierry Boinet/Associated Press)

GRENOBLE, France -- A bus carrying Polish Catholic pilgrims from a holy site in the French Alps plunged off a steep mountain road, crashed into a riverbank, and burst into flames yesterday, killing 26 people, authorities said.

Fourteen others were seriously injured in the wreck on a dangerous stretch of road where past bus accidents have killed dozens of people. Firefighters said the bus did not have the permit required to use the 12 percent gradient road.

The Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, and his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, traveled to Grenoble late yesterday to meet with the injured. Sarkozy said he was "shattered by the scale of the tragedy" and pledged to follow "very closely" the investigation into the causes of the accident.

Local residents said the bus missed a 90-degree bend in the steep mountain road near the village of Vizille as it returned from the shrine of Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette. The bus plowed through a barrier and plunged 65 feet onto the banks of the La Romanche River, catching fire on impact, firefighters said.

Victims were taken by helicopter to hospitals in Grenoble. Crews searched the river by helicopter and boat for a handful of missing passengers.

All that remained of the bus was its charred frame, with pieces strewn across the riverbank.

Forty-three pilgrims died in a crash on the same road in 1973, while 29 people died in a crash in 1975. Buses are prohibited from using the 5-mile road without a permit.

"We can't manage to make this descent safe," Jean-Jacques Defaite, the mayor of the neighboring town of Laffrey, told LCI television.

Although it rained heavily Saturday night, it was warm and sunny yesterday and the road was dry. Some said the speed could have been a factor in the crash. Grenoble state prosecutor Serge Samuel told France Info that four motorcyclists following the bus said it was traveling about 44 miles per hour before it crashed. Specialists would verify the speed of the bus, he said.

Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Robert Szaniawski said the bus carried 50 people, including 47 pilgrims, two drivers, and a guide; French media reported it had 50 to 60 people.

Local police said the bus driver behind the wheel was killed, while his colleague survived.

Most pilgrims were in their 50s to 70s, but among them were three children -- a 12-year-old and two 13-year-olds -- and several people in their 20s and 30s, said Marcin Szklarski, president of Orlando Travel, which organized the pilgrimage.

The travelers were mostly from the Szczecin area in northwestern Poland, near the German border. They had left July 10 for a two-week visit to famous sanctuaries in France, Spain, and Portugal, Szklarski said.

The bus, a 2000 Scania, passed safety checks three weeks ago in Germany, Szklarski said.

Three priests were on board, said the Rev. Slawomir Zyga, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in the Polish city of Szczecin.

One called the church in Szczecin after the accident.

Sarkozy and Kaczynski, who flew in from Poland, also visited a Grenoble morgue to pay their respects to those killed in the accident, and Kaczynski also visited the crash site.

The Polish government was organizing a flight for the victims' families from Szczecin to France this morning.