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The bus crashes, catches fire in Bulgaria; at least 45 dead

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SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) A bus carrying tourists to northern Macedonia crashed and caught fire in western Bulgaria early Tuesday, killing at least 45 people, including a dozen children, authorities said. DNA tests were being performed to identify the victims.

The bus apparently broke a handrail on a highway, though authorities said the cause was still under investigation. Photos taken shortly after the crash showed the vehicle engulfed in flames as dense, black plumes of smoke rose. Daylight revealed a burnt shell with all its inflated windows, sitting in the middle. Part of the handrail was lying on the street.

Seven survivors were hospitalized after the accident, which occurred as a group of buses were returning from a trip to Turkey. Twelve children were among the dead, according to Northern Macedonia Chief Prosecutor Ljubomir Joveski.

Bulgarian Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov told reporters at the crash site that he “had never seen anything more horrific in my life” and that the identification process would take time.

“People who were on the bus have turned to coal,” Rashkov said. “There were four buses that traveled together and it is possible that passengers change buses during stops.

Borislav Sarafov, head of the Bulgarian National Investigation Service, confirmed that 52 people were on the bus that crashed.

Among the survivors were five citizens of northern Macedonia, a Serb and a Belgian, according to the northern Macedonian Foreign Ministry. Albanian Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka said almost all of the dead were ethnic Albanians, but it was not clear if they were also citizens of northern Macedonia.

Blagoj Bocvarski, the transport minister of northern Macedonia, told reporters in the Skopje capital late Tuesday that officials had begun a procedure to revoke the travel license of the travel company that owns the bus. He said the company has four buses licensed to transport passengers internationally, but for the bus involved in the accident there was no information in the ministry that he had the license.

News of the collision hit the small Balkan country of 2 million hard. The government of northern Macedonia observed a minute of silence on Tuesday and declared three days of mourning. The flags will be lowered to half-mast and all public events will be canceled. The country’s prime minister traveled to Bulgaria, as did its chief prosecutor, who visited the crash site.

Azem Sadiki, mayor of Studenicani near Skopje, told reporters that 20 of the victims were locals. He said among the dead were a mother and her four children, as well as the woman’s sister and her two children.

We are very sad. This is a great loss for all of us and for the whole country, said Sadiki.

Outside the government building in Skopje, Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani told the Associated Press that authorities are doing their best to identify the victims as soon as possible.

The identification of victims has begun, he said. Autopsy and also DNA identification, because for some of the victims only then can they be identified.

Osmani added: Two things are important for us now, firstly to complete the identification as soon as possible and secondly to find the cause of the accident.

The country’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, who visited the survivors at the hospital, told Bulgarian television channel bTV that one said he had been awakened by an explosion.

In Skopje earlier, relatives gathered outside the travel company that was believed to have organized the trip, but the office seemed closed.

Now we are expecting bad news, a worried Bekim Aliti told reporters outside the building. He said his wife and his brother’s wife were on the trip.

Eldin Shiroki said his cousin was a tour guide for the company. “We still do not have any accurate information so we are waiting,” he said.

In 2019, Bulgaria had the second highest road mortality rate in the 27-nation European Union, with 89 people killed per million, according to European Commission data.

Let us hope that we will learn from this tragic incident and be able to prevent such incidents in the future, said incumbent Bulgarian Prime Minister Stefan Janev.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed her condolences to the families and friends of those who died and said in these terrible times, Europe stands in solidarity with you.

In response to the deadly crash, the Bulgarian government declared a day of national mourning for the bus victims on Wednesday. The case will also mark the deaths of nine people who died in a fire at a nursing home Monday in the eastern Bulgarian village of Royak.

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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the surname of the Chief Prosecutors of Northern Macedonia. It is Joveski, not Jovevski.

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McGrath reported from Bucharest, Romania. Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, Northern Macedonia, contributed.

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