Belgians joined by royals to honour dead children

Belgium's king and the Dutch crown prince joined thousands of mourners in a highly emotional homage Wednesday to the victims of last week's fatal school bus crash in a Swiss alpine tunnel.

"All Belgium is sad, as are our Dutch neighbours," said singer and TV host Bart Peeters on opening a two-and-a-half hour tribute to the 28 victims of the crash, 22 of them school-children returning from a skiing holiday.

King Albert II and Queen Paola, both visibly moved by the tragedy, joined 5,000 relatives and friends packed in a community hall in this sleepy northern town near the Dutch border, home to 17 of the dead, six of them Dutch nationals.

One by one, soldiers brought in the small rose-covered white coffins of the 15 children from Lommel's local school who died in the crash, and the larger brown one of their teacher "Meester Raymond".

Albert II and Queen Paola, Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Maxima, as well as Belgian and Dutch premiers Elio Di Rupo and Mark Rutte, bowed their heads in silence before the coffins laid out in an arc.

The Belgian royal couple then shook hands with families of the children, who were in the last year of primary school and aged 11 and 12. White balloons and wreaths of white flowers flanked the road outside and mourners wore white ribbons.

Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf too attended the ceremony alongside members of the Swiss rescue services -- the firemen, police and aid workers who spent agonising hours pulling the children from the wreckage and air-lifted them to hospital.

"The families have asked me to once again express their thanks to the Swiss rescue services as well as to the entire Swiss people who expressed their sympathy," said the mayor of Lommel, Peter Vanvelthoven, his voice breaking.

Mothers, fathers, sisters came up to recall the good times and say goodbye, along with the wife of one of the two bus drivers killed and the son of the teacher. The headmistress spoke of the school, a teacher of the joys of the yearly holidays in the snow.

A work of art was unveiled in tribute and a local choir ae well as the region's biggest pop group Clouseau brought in for the service.

A separate memorial has been scheduled for Thursday in the town of Heverlee, home to the other seven children and two adults killed in the crash.

From the early hours of the morning, townspeople turned out in droves to bring flowers and tributes for the service, televised live as the country remembered the young victims of the devastating crash.

The service was followed by private family burials, but most of the children and their teacher were to be buried alongside each other in the Lommel cemetery.

Meanwhile, a Swiss hospital reported Tuesday that three girls who survived the crash had woken from an induced coma and were no longer in danger.

Swiss investigators are due to travel to Belgium soon to question the children on board the coach in attempts to ascertain the cause of the accident.


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