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Bus, Train Crash Kills 33 in Hungary

The dead, all passengers on the bus, were German tourists. The driver reportedly failed to heed warning signals at a railway crossing.

May 09, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — Thirty-three German tourists were killed Thursday morning when a train sliced their bus in half, dragging wreckage down the tracks and scattering clothes and handbags across an intersection near a Hungarian lakeside resort.

Hungarian transportation officials said the bus driver ignored railroad warning lights about 8:30 a.m. A fast-moving passenger train traveling between Nagykanizsa and the capital of Budapest hit the bus in clear weather. Twenty-nine mostly elderly Germans were killed in the crash. Four others died later. Six people, including the train engineer, were injured.

"A full investigation is underway, but it looks like it's the fault of the bus driver," said Zoltan Mandoki, director of Hungary's national railways.

The train, according to police and emergency officials, ripped through the bus and pushed it at least 150 yards before stopping near the shores of Lake Balaton, about 65 miles southwest of Budapest.

One Hungarian news agency reported the train was going at least 70 miles per hour.

"This may be the most horrific bus accident in Hungary's history," said Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, who visited the scene with German Ambassador Wilfried Gruber. The two countries will conduct a joint investigation. There were conflicting reports about whether the bus driver was killed or was among the injured.

Part of the bus -- which was reportedly carrying 38 tourists -- wrapped around the train engine and the other section lay burning and crumpled near the tracks. The bodies of some bus passengers were pulled from beneath the train.

Emergency crews lined up wooden coffins in the grass and one of Hungary's most popular spa resorts was jolted by the sounds of sirens and helicopters evacuating the injured.

The German government said most of the dead were from the northern states of Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony. No names were released. The package vacation was booked with travel agency Maxim Reisen in Cloppenburg, Germany. The bus was chartered from Ursel Reisen, a family owned firm with four coaches, including two school buses. Officials from the companies could not be reached for comment.

German TV reports suggested the bus driver may have been attempting to follow another bus across the tracks. Police and transportation officials would not elaborate on why the bus was on the tracks, but said the driver did not heed the warning lights. There was no gate at the railroad crossing and Medgyessy said his government would consider erecting safety barriers.

"The train blew its whistle twice to warn the bus, but the train was not able to stop in time," Istvan Galos, an engineer, told reporters at the scene.

The mineral-rich waters of southern Hungary -- which soothe sore muscles, aging bones and other ailments -- draw tens of thousands of people to the Lake Balaton region each year. Over the last two decades there have been several major bus accidents in the area, including one in 1982 in which 18 people were killed at the same railroad crossing, according to Hungarian officials.

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