Small village mourns deaths of 21 teenagers killed in bus accident

MAKROHORI – Church bells tolled in this small northern Greek village yesterday as parents buried 11 teenagers who were among 21 high school students killed in one the country’s worst traffic accidents in 30 years. Local authorities declared a state of mourning in most of northern Greece, following the late Sunday accident between a truck loaded with plywood boards and a bus packed with 10th graders returning home from a weekend field trip to Athens. Most of the students were 15 or 16 years old. The accident killed 21 of the 49 students aboard the bus and injured 32 people. They included 24 students, two teachers and an escort aboard the bus, its driver, and four people who were riding in three cars that also crashed. All the students attended the same class in this village of 1,200 residents, located 55 kilometers (34 miles) south of the northern port of Thessaloniki. Only five of the 54 students in the class did not go on the field trip. The rest of the funerals were to take place yesterday in smaller neighboring villages. The crash occurred when the truck skidded on a turn and its load of plywood boards sheared through the entire left portion of the bus, killing nearly everyone sitting on that side. The bus and three cars then hit the side of a cliff, which lines the winding mountainous stretch of the main highway linking Athens with Thessaloniki. It took place at Tempe, about 354 kilometers (220 miles) north of Athens and 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Makrohori. Prime Minister Costas Simitis promised an in-depth investigation. «This is a tragedy. Whatever the cause, which will be investigated, the tragic fact remains. I express my grief and compassion, like all the Greek people, for the unfair loss of so many young children, as well as my undivided support toward the families of all the victims,» Simitis said. Teams of doctors, psychologists and priests were in the village to care for parents and relatives. «I express my deep grief and my paternal sympathy toward the parents of the victims,» Greek Orthodox Church leader Archbishop Christodoulos said. «This has shaken not only the families, but the whole county.» Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer also sent his condolences. «This accident – the most lethal for decades in Greece in terms of lives lost – is a veritable tragedy for the small village… home to all of the teenagers involved, and for the Greek nation as a whole,» Schwimmer said in an announcement issued in Strasbourg, France. It is the second accident involving a bus in northern Greece this year. On February 24 a bus skidded off a highway bridge and into a river, killing 14 of the 23 people aboard.