By VESELIN TOSHKOV and STEPHEN McGRATH
SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — A bus carrying tourists back to North Macedonia crashed and caught fire in western Bulgaria early Tuesday, killing at least 45 people, including a dozen children, authorities said.
The bus apparently ripped through a guardrail 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 plumes of thick, black smoke rose. Daylight revealed a burned-out shell with all of its windows blown out, sitting in the median. A portion of the guardrail was peeled away and lying in the road.
Seven survivors were taken to hospitals after the crash, which happened as a group of buses was returning from a trip to Turkey.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov told reporters at the crash site that he had “never in my life seen something more 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.”
But Borislav Sarafov, chief of Bulgaria’s national investigation service, confirmed that 52 people were on the bus.
Among the survivors, five are North Macedonia nationals, one is Serbian and another Belgian, according to the North Macedonia Foreign Ministry.
Albanian Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka, meanwhile, wrote online that almost all of the dead were ethnic Albanians — but it was not clear if they were also nationals of North Macedonia, which is home to a significant number of ethnic Albanians.
News of the crash hit hard in the small country of about 2 million people. The North Macedonia government observed a minute of silence Tuesday and declared three days of mourning. Flags will be lowered to half-staff, 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. Several Bulgarian officials, including the caretaker prime minister, also went to the scene.
Twelve children were confirmed among the dead, according to the North Macedonia chief prosecutor, Ljubomir Joveski.
The country’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, who visited survivors in the hospital, told Bulgarian television channel bTV that one said he was awoken by an explosion.
In the capital of Skopje, police and family members of gathered outside the offices of a travel company that is believed to have organized the trip. The office looked closed, with a grate pulled down over its door.
“Now we are waiting for bad news,” Bekim Aliti, who was visibly distraught, told reporters outside the building. He said his wife and his brother’s wife were on the trip.
Eldin Shiroki said his cousin works as a tour guide for the company. “We still don’t have any accurate information — so we are waiting,” he said.
In 2019, Bulgaria had the second-highest road fatality rate in the 27-nation European Union, with 89 people killed per million, according to European Commission data.
“Let’s hope we learn lessons from this tragic incident, and we can prevent such incidents in the future,” said Bulgarian Caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Yanev.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed her condolences to the families and friends of those who died and said that “in these terrible times, Europe stands in solidarity with you.”
In response to the deadly crash, the Bulgarian government declared Wednesday a national day of mourning for the victims. The occasion will also mark the deaths of nine people who died in a nursing home fire Monday in the eastern Bulgarian village of Royak.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the North Macedonia chief prosecutor’s last name. It is Joveski, not Jovevski.
McGrath reported from Bucharest, Romania. Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.