Investigators have said they do not believe a bus that exploded in Bulgaria killing 45 people including 12 children was carrying fireworks, as the cause of the crash remains a mystery.
Officials believe the tourist bus crashed into the highway rails at 62mph and burst into flames near Sofia early Tuesday while returning from Istanbul in Turkey to North Macedonia’s Skopje.
Local media reports suggested that the fire started at the front of the bus after 30,000 firecrackers stored in its luggage hold exploded.
But investigators are now denying those local reports, saying that their initial findings suggest that there were no firecrackers found on the bus.
Macedonian Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski said: ‘The first findings and information suggest that there were no gas tubes nor pyrotechnics in the bus, but this will be certain only after the investigation is completed.’
One of the seven survivors of the crash, who escaped after breaking a window and fleeing the burning vehicle, said the scene reminded him of a horror film as thick smoke filled the bus while people desperately screamed for help.
The fire that engulfed the bus was so intense that many of the victims were burned beyond recognition with forensics teams sent to try to identify the bodies.
The bus exploded in Bulgaria on Tuesday, killing 45 people including 12 children
A woman cries as she lights a candle in front of the North Macedonia’s embassy in Sofia on Wednesday in memory of the dozens of victims
Luan and Alban Ahmeti, both aged four, have been identified as two of the youngest victims of the bus explosion
Pictured: Flames and smoke are seen rising from a bus on a motorway in Bulgaria after it crashed, killing 45 passengers
One survivor Lulzim Sulejmani from southern Serbia, told Klan TV: ‘The bus hit the pavement on the right side and the wheels got punctured.
‘The bus then burst into flames and began to fill with smoke. The bus continued to roll forward for about 20 meters before coming to a stop.’
He added: ‘People started vomiting and screaming – it was like a horror movie. I managed to escape by smashing a window with a hammer. I took my fiancee and five other people with me.’
Officials say the driver died before the flames took hold, meaning there was nobody to open the bus doors.
Many of the passengers were ethnic Albanians aged 20-30 and included a dozen minors with the youngest fatality four-year-old twins.
Luan and Alban Ahmeti were burned to death alongside father Avni and mother Jihan.
Gazmend Ukali, 27, and his fiancee Albina Belluli, 23, have also been identified among the dead. The pair were returning from Istanbul after celebrating Gazmend’s birthday, local media reported.
Seven people were pulled alive from the wreck (pictured as officials work at the scene in Bulgaia), including a 16-year-old girl, and have been taken to hospital in the capital of Sofia with non-life-threatening injuries
Pictured: Relatives of people injured and killed in a bus accident talk at the coffee shop next to the hospital in Sofia, Bulgaria
Northern Macedonia government flags fly at half mast in the capital of Skopje following the tragedy
Gazmend Ukali (right), 27, and his fiancee Albina Belluli (left), 23, have also been identified among the dead. The pair were returning from Istanbul after celebrating Gazmend’s birthday, local media reported
‘I lost my whole family in the blaze,’ one man told the Sloboden Pecat newspaper, saying 10 relatives had died.
‘Today is a day of mourning,’ Bulgarian Interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev said as he lead a minute of silence at the start of a government session Wednesday.
The survivors were hospitalised in Sofia in a stable condition, despite their injuries and bad burns, according to Maya Argirova, head of the Pirogov burns clinic.
Lulzim’s fiancee, Medina Lutfi, 25, said she also jumped out the window to escape the bus.
‘I was sleeping and suddenly I heard fellow passengers crying and screaming… There was black smoke, an explosion like a bomb… I heard children crying, there were a lot of children,’ Lutfi said.
A nightguard at a nearby construction site, Iliya Nikolov, said he heard a ‘boom’, was among the first on the scene and called emergency help.
‘We ran down the road… and there was something burning in the guardrails. The fire was smaller in the beginning but then the back of the bus flamed up,’ Nikolov told bTV.
The bus, which was carrying mostly tourists from North Macedonia, caught fire on Struma highway around 26 miles west of Sofia at 2am, according to Mr Nikolov
Pictured: Forensic investigators and other officials work at the site of a bus accident, in which 45 people were killed
The site has been sealed off and Bulgarian interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev rushed to the scene of the tragedy. Pictured, investigations into the crash have begun
The bus – registered with the Besa Trans tourist agency, which organises tours to Istanbul – was the last of four from the same company that travelled together, according to reports.
North Macedonia’s transport minister told reporters on Tuesday that the vehicle was not registered for international transport.
Several world leaders sent condolences over the tragic accident.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted about ‘the tragic loss of life’.
‘Our hearts go out to all those in mourning, and we wish a speedy recovery to the injured,’ he said.
Bulgaria has a history of deadly bus crashes, but Tuesday’s disaster was the worst, according to officials, and the worst in Europe in the past decade.
Road accidents in Bulgaria have often been attributed to poor road conditions, outdated cars and speeding.
Tuesday’s accident occurred on a notorious section of highway with steep gradients and without clear demarcation lines.
Since the crash, footage has emerged of people preparing to board the ill-fated bus. Security cameras at the hotel where many of the passengers were staying in Istanbul captured the moment they were leaving in order to catch the bus back home.
Officials work at the site of a bus accident, in which 45 people were killed, on a highway near the village of Bosnek, south of Sofia
Photos taken shortly after the crash showed the bus engulfed in flames with plumes of thick, black smoke rising from the scene. Pictured: Officials work at the scene of the crash of Tuesday in Bulgaria
Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov, who visited the scene in the early hours, said the bodies of the dead were ‘completely burned out’ by the intensity of the fire.
The official said that it was unlikely that the driver fell asleep as only 30 minutes before, they had stopped for a break at a service station for around 30 minutes.
Photos taken shortly after the crash showed the bus engulfed in flames with plumes of thick, black smoke rising from the scene. Daylight revealed the burned-out bus, its windows all blown out, charred and gutted, sitting upright against the median barrier. A portion of the guardrail was peeled away and lying in the road.
Rashkov told reporters at the crash site that he had ‘never in my life seen something more horrifying.’
‘The picture is horrifying, the people who were on the bus are turned to charcoal,’ Rashkov said. ‘It is impossible to say how many they were. There were four buses that traveled together, and it is possible that passengers changed buses during the stops.’
Bulgaria’s interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev said a probe into the accident had been launched, dismissing the suggestion that road conditions were to blame.
Rashkov said it appears three coaches were travelling in convoy when the rear coach struck a temporary crash barrier on one side of the road, which caused it to swerve and hit another barrier in the centre of the highway.
At some point during the crash the vehicle burst into flames, with Mr Rashkov suggesting the friction between coach and crash barrier could have sparked the blaze – though authorities have yet to reveal the exact cause.
In Sofia, Adnan Yasharovski, 45, said his 16-year-old daughter Zuleikha called him to say she had survived the crash, and he travelled to see her in hospital.
‘She was crying. Her hands were burnt but otherwise fine,’ he told Reuters outside the hospital. ‘She didn’t say much, she was crying and she was in shock. I only saw her through the door as due to COVID, they did not let me into the room.’
Images showed the carcass of the totally burned out bus, having broken through the guardrails between the two sides of the highway.
In 2019, Bulgaria, an EU nation of 7 million, had the second-highest road fatality rate in the 27-nation bloc with 89 people killed per million population, according to European Commission data.
A total of 628 people died in road accidents in 2019 and 463 in 2020, according to official data. The accidents were often attributed to poor road conditions, outdated cars and speeding.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen sent her ‘deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who perished in the tragic bus accident’ and wished ‘a fast recovery to those injured’.
‘In these terrible times, Europe stands in solidarity with you,’ she said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressed his ‘sincere condolences’ and said he hoped for ‘the speedy recovery of all those wounded’.
In Europe, in one of the worst accidents in recent years, 43 people died in 2015 when a coach carrying a pensioners’ club collided with a lorry and caught fire in southwest France.