A dozen children — including 4-year-old twin brothers — were among the 45 people killed when a bus carrying people home to North Macedonia from a tourist trip to Istanbul crashed and caught fire in western Bulgaria early Tuesday, officials said.
The dead also included five young members of the same family, authorities said.
Meanwhile, seven people who jumped from the burning vehicle were rushed to the Pirogov hospital in the capital of Sofia and listed in stable condition. Their injuries included burns and a broken leg.
North Macedonia’s chief prosecutor, Ljubomir Joveski, visited the scene of the accident, which occurred during the trip from Istanbul to Skopje in North Macedonia. Joveski said 12 children were among the dead.
The twins, Luan Ahmeti and Alban Ahmeti, died alongside their parents, Avni and Jihan Ahmeti, all of Albanian heritage, according to the UK’s Metro.
In front of the Ismail Qemali elementary school in Skopje, students cried after hearing that five of their schoolmates, all from one family, were killed.
“Ergin was my friend. He was a very good boy. Very nice. I am so sorry that they died,” Blerim Bushi, 11, told Reuters.
Gazmend Ukali, 27, and his fiancee Albina Belluli, 23, who also perished in the inferno, were returning from Istanbul after celebrating Gazmend’s birthday in the Turkish capital, the news outlet reported.
Albanian Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka said that almost all of the dead were ethnic Albanians. It was not immediately clear if they also were residents or citizens of North Macedonia, a country of 2 million that borders Bulgaria and is home to a large number of ethnic Albanians.
It appeared that the crash, which happened around 2 a.m., may have occurred when the bus hit a highway guardrail, crashed and caught fire. The vehicle was one of four buses traveling together.
Photos taken shortly after the crash showed the bus engulfed in flames as plumes of thick, black smoke rose from it. After sunrise, its burned-out shell was seen with all of its windows blown out, sitting in the median near a peeled-off section of guardrail.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov told reporters at the scene that he had “never in my life seen something more horrifying.”
“The picture is horrifying, the people who were on the bus are turned to charcoal,” Rashkov said. “It is impossible to say how many they were. There were four buses that traveled together, and it is possible that passengers changed buses during the stops.”
North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called it a “huge tragedy” and expressed his condolences to the victims’ relatives, adding that the passengers included a Serbian citizen and a Belgian citizen.
It was unclear whether the pair were among the dead in the crash, which happened on the Struma highway about 19 miles west of Sofia.
“Human error by the driver or a technical malfunction are the two initial versions for the accident,” Bulgarian investigative service chief Borislav Sarafov told Reuters.
Adnan Yasharovski, 45, said in Sofia that his daughter Zuleikha, 16, called him to say she survived the crash.
“She was crying. Her hands were burnt but otherwise fine,” he told Reuters outside the hospital after visiting his daughter.
“She didn’t say much, she was crying, and she was in shock. I only saw her through the door as due to COVID, they did not let me into the room,” Yasharovski added.
With Post wires