A train has ploughed into a school bus at a crossing in southern France, killing at least four children and injuring more than 20 others, nine critically.
Most of the victims were reported to be aged between 13 and 17.
Photographs from the scene showed that the bus was sliced in half in what the authorities described as a “serious rail accident”. Helicopters took the injured to hospital.
The school bus was 12 miles (20km) west of Perpignan, in the Pyrénées-Orientales, heading towards the village of Villefranche-de-Conflent when it was hit. It was carrying pupils from the Christian Bourquin secondary school at Millas heading home to two villages, Saint Féliu d’Amont and Saint Féliu d’Avall.
The mayor of Saint Féliu d’Amont, Robert Olive, who went to the scene, said he was “deeply shocked”. He described it as a “horrific sight”.
“I don’t know what happened, but the school bus had been actually cut in two by the passing train,” Olive told the local radio France Bleu Roussillon. “The bus appeared to have exploded. People were being very dignified but everyone was shocked.”
After travelling to Perpignan and meeting victims’ families, an emotional Édouard Philippe, the French prime minister, described the accident as a “terrible drama”.
He said: “The circumstances have not yet been determined and will be the subject of a legal inquiry to throw light on the circumstances of the drama.”
Philippe said 24 people had been caught up in the collision: four who had died, 11 who were in a critical condition, and nine who were injured. However, he added that the severity of the crash had made it difficult to identify some of the victims.
He said: “The priority at this stage is to give precise information to the families who are living through a period of anguish that we must make as short as possible. The communication of this precise information relates to the identification of those who have died or been injured. This process has begun, but it is extremely difficult.”
Reports said the driver of school bus was a 48-year-old woman who was seriously injured.
The transport minister, Élisabeth Borne, described the crash as a “terrible accident”.
Très vive émotion suite au terrible accident survenu à #Millas dans les Pyrénées-Orientales. Les secours et les services de l’Etat sont pleinement mobilisés. Je me rends sur place immédiatement.
— Elisabeth BORNE (@Elisabeth_Borne) December 14, 2017
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, also tweeted his condolences. “My thoughts go out to the victims of this terrible accident involving a school bus and their families. The state is doing everything in its power to support the rescue operation,” Macron wrote.
The accident happened at an automatic crossing on a two-lane country road as the bus crossed a single-track railway line secured by a simple striped barrier and warning lights in each direction.
A spokeswoman for France’s national rail company, SNCF, said the train was running at 80km/h (50mph) at the time of the accident, and 25 people were on board. Three of those were slightly injured.
“The railway crossing was a normal one, well equipped and lit up. Several witnesses have confirmed that the barriers were down, so they were working, but all this will be the subject of an inquiry,” she added.
About 95 firefighters, 10 rescue vehicles and four helicopters as well as emergency medics were dispatched to the scene.
Carole Delga, the president of the Occitaine regional authority, confirmed that the vehicle involved was a school bus taking children home.
The collision happened at around 4.30pm on Thursday. Witnesses travelling on the train told the local newspaper L’Indépendant they had felt a “very violent impact”.
“We thought the train was going to come off the rails and turn over,” one passenger named Barbara told the newspaper. “Afterwards there were helicopters mobilised to take away the injured.”
SNCF sent a “sincere message of support” to the families of those involved.
“Given the severity of the accident, the Pyrénées-Orientales prefect has decided to activate the departmental operational centre so the actions of different (emergency) services can be coordinated. The emergency services and the gendarmerie are at the scene,” the statement said.
It said further information would be released when available.
The accident was one of the worst involving a vehicle carrying children since 1982, when a coach taking youngsters on a holiday caught fire at Beaune in central France, killing 53 people, 44 of them children.
In 2016, there were 111 collisions between trains and vehicles at railroad crossings in France, killing 31. About 90% of accidents involve cars or ‘light’ vehicles, and in almost all cases the vehicle driver is reported to be responsible.