PUISSEGUIN, France (AP) — A truck and a bus carrying retirees collided Friday in southwest France’s wine region, igniting an inferno that authorities said killed 43 people and badly injured four others. It was France’s deadliest road accident in more than 30 years.
Images on French television showed the carcass of the bus – a collapsing, charred frame engulfed by smoke near the village of Puisseguin, 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Bordeaux. The seats were 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 quickly opened the bus door, but others were trapped as flames quickly consumed the vehicles, Puisseguin Mayor Xavier Sublett said on i-Tele television.
Among those killed was the truck driver’s 3-year-old son who was traveling with his father and whose small body was discovered in the truck’s wreckage. French media said the truck driver was among the dead.
The mayor 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. An investigation is underway. The weather in the region was overcast Friday morning but not rainy.
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.
One of the injured was the driver of a car who stopped and tried to help rescue people, legislator 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.
Identifying the victims was difficult because the passenger list burned in the fire, Savary said.
Questions surfaced about the safety of the road, and 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.
Savary said 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. Hollande, visiting Greece at the time, also expressed “the solidarity of the whole nation” with the victims’ loved ones.