France stunned by deadly school bus crash

Firefighters and police work at the site of the accident in Millas, southern France, where a train crashed into a school bus at a level crossing. (AFP)
Updated 15 December 2017
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France stunned by deadly school bus crash

MILLAS, France: French authorities were investigating Friday how a train was able to smash into a school bus, killing six children and ripping their vehicle in half in an accident that has stunned the local community.
Four teenagers died on Thursday in the collision at a level crossing in the village of Millas near the southern city of Perpignan, with the toll rising Friday when two 11-year-old girls succumbed to their injuries.
Fourteen other children were injured when the bus was torn in two and the train pulled off its rails, in the worst accident involving a school bus in France for three decades.
Investigators only finished identifying the dead teenagers overnight due to the severity of their injuries, with the mayor of the neighboring village describing the scene as “a vision of horror.”
The accident site was sealed off as police examined whether a technical or human error was to blame.
It has not been confirmed whether the automatic barriers were open at the time of the crash, though national rail operator SNCF said the crossing was “functioning normally,” citing witnesses.
“The families of those caught up in the accident are going through something absolutely terrible,” said Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who visited Millas on Thursday.
Most of the students were from the local Christian Bourquin junior high school, where pupils were in shock as they headed in on Friday morning.
“I went to sleep at two or three in the morning. I was watching the news, I wasn’t able to sleep,” said teenager Lorena Garcies, dressed in black.
Her cousin and another friend were on the bus, but escaped with broken bones and trauma.
“I’m trying to be strong for them,” she said.
The female driver of the bus was among the injured and has not yet been questioned, but Perpignan prosecutor Jean-Jacques Fagni said investigators had spoken to the train driver.
“There was good visibility,” said regional chief Carole Delga.
“This level crossing wasn’t really dangerous and no technical problems had been raised,” she told Europe 1 radio.
She nonetheless pledged to modernize dangerous crossings, as a debate broke out about whether a technical error had caused the crash.
Samuel Conegero, the father of one of the children, said his son took a photo showing “the barriers were lifted” when the bus drove into the path of the incoming train.
“We will obviously consider malfunctions of all kinds,” senior police official Jean Valery Letterman said. “This will take time.”
At the school, Sabrina Mesas, hugging her stunned daughter Lilou whose best friend was lightly injured in the crash, was struggling to stop fight back tears.
“We’re in total shock this morning,” Mesas said. “It’s important that everyone is together, that they can talk, to put into words what has happened.”
A psychological support team was on site and students were encouraged to come into school — authorities do not want them to face the tragedy alone, said Abdelkader Taoui, one of the doctors sent to help.
Teachers have also been left stunned. “I don’t even know how to get on with things,” said Jordi Sales, who teaches Catalan and Spanish at the school near the Spanish border.
Robert Olive, mayor of neighboring Saint-Feliu-d’Amont, described the scene as a “vision of horror.”
The accident is the worst involving a school bus in France since 1987, when 53 people including 44 children were killed in a pile-up involving two coaches that were taking students to a summer camp.
France has also seen multiple deadly rail accidents in recent years, including the derailment of a high-speed TGV train that was being tested in 2015, killing 11 people onboard.
In 2013, seven people were killed when a commuter train slammed into a station south of Paris. A signaling defect was blamed for that crash.


North Korea preps nuclear site demolition despite US summit doubts

Updated 23 May 2018
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North Korea preps nuclear site demolition despite US summit doubts

SEOUL: Invited foreign journalists gathered in North Korea Wednesday to witness the slated destruction of the reclusive regime’s nuclear test site, a high profile gesture on the road to a summit with the US that Donald Trump now says might not happen.
In a surprise announcement Pyongyang said earlier this month that it planned to “completely” destroy the Punggye-ri facility in the country’s northeast, a move welcomed by Washington and Seoul.
Punggye-ri has been the site of all six of the North’s nuclear tests, the latest and by far the most powerful in September last year, which Pyongyang said was an H-bomb.
The demolition is due to take place sometime between Wednesday and Friday, depending on the weather.
The North has portrayed the destruction on the test site as a goodwill gesture ahead of planned June 12 summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore.
But doubts have since been cast by both sides on whether that potentially historic meeting will take place.
Last week Pyongyang threatened to pull out if Washington pressed for its unilateral nuclear disarmament. Trump also said the meeting could be delayed as he met with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in in Washington on Tuesday.
“There are certain conditions we want to happen. I think we’ll get those conditions. And if we don’t, we won’t have the meeting,” he told reporters, without elaborating on what those conditions might be.

Politically, Trump has invested heavily in the success of his meeting with Kim, and so privately most US officials, as well as outside observers, believe it will go ahead.
But as the date draws near, Trump’s divergence from his top aides, the differences between the two sides and the high stakes are coming into sharp relief.
Washington has made it clear it wants to see the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the North.
Pyongyang has vowed it will never give up its nuclear deterrence until it feels safe from what is sees as US aggression.
“Everything is on thin ice,” Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP.
“Trump wants a swift denuclearization, something that will be done within his first term in office. In that case, he has to provide North Korea with a corresponding, swift security guarantee.”
Observers will be watching the nuclear test site destruction ceremony closely for any clues to the North’s mood.
Experts are divided over whether the demolition will render the site useless. Sceptics say the site has already outlived its usefulness with six successful nuclear tests in the bag and can quickly be rebuilt if needed.
Previous similar gestures by the North have been rapidly reversed when the international mood soured.
But others say the fact that North Korea agreed to destroy the site without preconditions or asking for something in return from Washington is significant.

Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said both sides were playing “a game of chicken” in the run up to the summit “to gain an upper hand in negotiations.”
He said the destruction of the Punggye-ri test site would win Pyongyang international sympathy even if the summit collapses.
“North Korea can say to the international community that it did its best to achieve denuclearization through negotiations but was pressured by the United States and couldn’t do it,” he said.
A handful of foreign journalists, including from South Korea, were invited to attend the demolition ceremony.
Reporters from China, the US and Russia departed on a charter flight from Beijing on Tuesday for the North Korean city of Wonsan.
From there they are expected to travel for some 20 hours up the east coast by train and bus to the remote test site — a vivid illustration of the impoverished country’s notoriously decrepit transport infrastructure.
South Korean journalists were initially left off the flight because they were not granted permission by Pyongyang.
But on Wednesday Seoul’s Unification Ministry said they had been allowed to attend at the last minute.
The ministry said it planned to arrange a rare direct flight on Wednesday between the two countries, who remain technically at war, to ferry the journalists to Wonsan.
Agence France-Presse is one of a number of major media organizations not invited to cover the demolition.