PUISSEGUIN, France (AP) — A French investigator says it’s far too early to know the cause of a fiery crash between a truck and a bus full of retirees that killed 43 people Friday morning — France’s deadliest road accident in more than 30 years.
Christophe Auger, the prosecutor for Libourne in southwest France’s wine region, said “it’s impossible at this stage” to say why the tourist bus and the empty truck crashed on a winding road near the village of Puisseguin, 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Bordeaux. The crash killed 41 bus passengers, the truck driver and his 3-year-old son, who was riding in the truck with his father. Four other people were badly injured.
Auger said investigators’ top priority in the coming days is to identify the victims, a task made difficult by the charred state of their remains. Experts expect it will take three weeks before all victims are identified.
In the meantime, experts will begin analyzing the wreckage and collecting testimony from survivors, including the bus driver, to try to understand the cause of the crash, Auger said in a televised news conference.
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Images on French television showed the carcass of the bus — a collapsing, charred frame engulfed by smoke near Puisseguin, its seats nothing but empty metal frames. Aerial views showed the mangled remains of both vehicles on a narrow, curving road surrounded by trees.
Eight people, including the driver, escaped after the driver opened the bus door, but others were trapped as flames quickly consumed the vehicles, Puisseguin Mayor Xavier Sublett told i-Tele television. He told RTL radio the truck driver lost control of the vehicle.
“(The bus driver) tried to avoid it, but the truck came and hit it,” Sublett said.
Dr. Philippe Flipot of Puisseguin said he spoke to the bus driver afterward.
“He found himself facing a jack-knifed truck, he couldn’t avoid it. He managed to open the doors and some passengers could get off the bus. Risking his life, because flames were licking him, he managed to evacuate some people,” Flipot said on Europe-1 radio.
Other authorities remained cautious about the circumstances of the crash. The weather in the region was overcast Friday morning but not rainy.
A police spokesman said the truck was registered in the Mayenne region in northwest France, which means it had to comply with French safety laws at some point.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls called the crash the deadliest road accident in France in more than 30 years, and a “terrible shock” for the country.
Of the four seriously injured people, two had burns and two had head injuries, authorities said. One of the injured was the driver of a car who stopped and tried to help rescue people, lawmaker Gilles Savary told RTL radio.
Police said the death toll was unusually high because both vehicles caught fire immediately. Scores of emergency workers rushed to the scene and helicopters evacuated severely burned victims.
The accident was devastating for the surrounding communities. The bus was carrying members of a senior citizens’ club from the town of Petit-Palais-et-Cornemps on a daylong ham-tasting trip to Arzacq-Arraziguet, 200 kilometers (120 miles) away. The bus had traveled just a few minutes, about seven kilometers (four miles), when the collision occurred.
Questions surfaced about the safety of the road, especially the curve. Legislator Noel Mamere, who represents the Gironde region where the accident occurred, said the collision was on an “extremely dangerous curve that is considered very accident-prone.”
“That should make us question ourselves about political choices made in terms of infrastructure,” Mamere said.
However, no other accidents have been recorded at the site of Friday’s crash in the past five years, local authorities said.
Savary admitted that some roads in the region are in need of repair, but added there’s no way to ensure 100 percent safety on French roads.
Calling the crash an “immense tragedy,” French President Francois Hollande promised an investigation into what happened. Visiting Greece at the time, Hollande also expressed “the solidarity of the whole nation” with the victims’ loved ones.
Keller reported from Paris. Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton in Paris and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.