AVELLINO: At least 36 people were killed after a coach carrying pilgrims, including some children, plunged off a motorway flyover in southern Italy, according to rescue services.
Another 11 people were injured, they added, in what is already one of the worst coach accidents in Europe in recent years.
Rescue workers said they had pulled 33 bodies from the wreckage after Sunday evening’s crash near the town of Avellino in the Campania region.
They found the bodies of another three people underneath the coach. They had been thrown from the vehicle as it plunged 30 metres (100 feet) down a slope.
Photographers at the scene described how fire crews raced to find any remaining survivors, as the victims were laid out under white sheets along the roadside.
“Looking down from the overpass, the scene of the tragedy: some 30 bodies covered by white sheets, lined up along the roadside,” said Cesare Abbate of Italy’s ANSA news agency, before the toll was revised upwards.
An AFP photographer at the scene described rescue workers searching the crash site early Monday under arc-lights set up around the coach, which lay on its side in an inaccessible area at the bottom of the slope.
From time to time, rescue workers called for “a moment of silence” to listen for signs of life from the wreckage, he said.
The accident happened on a flyover on the A16 highway between Naples and Bari, near Avellino in the Monteforte Irpino district about 50 kilometres, (30 miles) east of Naples.
The coach passengers had been returning to Naples following a pilgrimage to Pietrelcina, the birthplace of Saint Pio, an Italian priest canonised in 2002 who is highly venerated in southern Italy.
The coach had been travelling at high speed when it crashed on the busy dual carriageway. Witnesses said it looked as if the coach might have had brake problems.
It hit several cars before plunging off the flyover and there were reports that some of those in the seven or eight cars caught up in the chaos had also been injured.
Italian media reports said the place where the accident happened was at a particularly dangerous downward slope on the road that is already an accident black spot.
It was not yet exactly clear how many were on the coach, but local media reported that about 50 people were on board, many of them children.
The emergency services had rushed three badly injured children, four women and two men to hospitals in Avellino and nearby Naples, media reports said.
Police would not put a definitive number on those killed in the accident.
“Our priority now is to free the wounded,” a spokesman told AFP.
“The situation is critical,” head fireman Pellegrino Iandolo told SKY TG24 television. “Our men are working to save as many lives as possible.”
Officials at the site said the driver of the coach was among the victims.
The Naples-Bari highway had been closed to traffic, the police said.
The last major coach accident in Europe was in March 2012 in Switzerland, when a coach carrying Belgian schoolchildren home from a skiing holiday crashed killing 28 people, including 22 children.