Nine Ukrainians among tourists killed in fiery bus crash in Italy

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Venetian mainlanders stopped in dismay Wednesday to pay respects to the 21 people, all but one foreign tourists, who were killed when an all-electric shuttle bus crashed through an overpass guardrail and fence, plunging more than 10 meters (30 feet) to the ground.

The raised road opposite a major train station is one of the borough of Mestre’s most frequently traveled, without second thoughts. But they now stopped to inspect the aging guardrail and rusted fence - both of which the bus sliced through in a moment during Tuesday rush-hour traffic.

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The bus was just a year old, and the 40-year-old driver with an untarnished record had just started his shift shuttling tourists from Piazzale Roma, at the edge of Venice’s famed canals, to a four-star campground on the mainland offering bargain accommodation. The driver, Alberto Rizzotto, was among the dead.

A video showed the city-owned bus disappear from the frame, as another larger bus traveling behind it continued along the overpass. Prosecutors ruled out contact with any other vehicle, and said the shuttle bus scraped against the guardrail for at least 50 meters (more than 150 feet) before its fiery crash to a surface road.

The guardrail was bent to the pavement, and the fence was ripped open. The bus landed upside down, its front end crushed. Fire damage was visible.

“Inexplicable,’’ said Mayor Luigi Brugnaro, who has driven on the overpass hundreds of times. Regional Gov. Luca Zaia said the circumstances suggested the driver may have suddenly become ill.

Investigators hope that video from cameras inside the bus will reveal the reason for the crash.

Nine Ukrainians were among the dead tourists, along with four Romanians, three Germans, two Portuguese, one Croat and one South African.

The injured included at least four Ukrainians, part of a larger group that included a 3-year-old girl who suffered serious burns, as well as visitors from Spain, Austria, France, Croatia and Germany. Nine were being treated in intensive care for trauma, including burns and fractures. Survivors also included a young Austrian brother and sister.

“They are still in what we call the shock phase, with confused memories. They are still in that state of agitation and confusion typical of the traumatic event,’’ said Rita Lorio, a psychologist at Mestre’s main hospital, one of five treating the injured. “They are not yet in that phase of awareness of what happened.”

The tourists are all believed to have stayed at the Hu Venezia Camping in Town, just a 15-minute drive from shuttle bus’s pickup point at Piazzale Roma, at the edge of Venice’s famed canals linked to the mainland by a bridge.

The crash has shocked Venetians, two-thirds of whom live on the mainland. Many stopped on Wednesday morning to pay their respects, staring at the gaping guardrail and fence. One man stopped on his motorcycle to tie plastic flowers to a post.

Gianni Amadeo, an 80-year-old retired musician, stopped in disbelief Wednesday at the site that he passes regularly between his home and a garage he uses for storage.

“It took a scary flight,” he said of the bus’s plunge.

Family members of the dead and survivors were trickling in to Venice from around Europe on Wednesday. The Veneto region declared three days of mourning, and flags were flown at half-staff at government buildings.

Experts said the fact that the bus was electric contributed to the massive fire and made rescue operations more difficult.

“I won’t forget what I saw for the rest of my life,” Brugnaro, the mayor, told The Associated Press from his office in Mestre. “Seeing all those people crammed inside a bus, down there, is something you can’t describe.

Venice is in the process of replacing its buses with electric vehicles. They were introduced on the city’s Lido island several years ago, with a small percentage added to the fleet in Mestre last year.

Brugnaro said the crash didn’t give him reason to pause the city’s plan to upgrade city transportation vehicles to less-polluting electric buses, even if it needs to be determined what role the battery might have played in the ensuing blaze.

That the bus drove off an overpass “has nothing to do with the fact that it is electric,” the mayor said.

The bus was made by China-based Yutong Group Co., which describes itself as a large-scale industrial company specializing in buses.

On its website, Yutong shows newer models with multiple electronic safety systems including a lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking, collision warning and collision mitigation control. It wasn’t clear from photographs at the scene which of the company’s models were involved.

The website says the buses have buffer spaces for high-voltage electrical components at the front and rear. It also says the buses have enhanced anti-crash structures.

“Fully spatial and thermal isolation between battery cabin and passenger compartment poses no threat to passengers, even if the batteries catch fire,” the website says.

Two long-time foreign residents of Italy who work at the Fincantieri shipyard near the crash site were among the first to respond. Godstime Erheneden, 30, of Nigeria and Boubacar Touré, 27 of Gambia, were preparing dinner in a company apartment overlooking the busy road when they heard the crash and ran outside.

Erheneden was among the first to enter the bus.

“When we went in, we saw the driver right away. He was dead. I carried a woman out on my shoulders, then a man,” Erheneden told the Venice daily Il Gazzettino.

“The woman was screaming, ‘my daughter, my daughter,’ and I went back in. I saw this girl who must have been 2 years old,’’ he said, reminded of his own son about the same age. “It was terrible. I don’t know if she survived. I thought she was alive but when the rescuers arrived, they took her away immediately.’’

Touré said he helped three or four people to safety. “I tried to put out the fire, but I couldn’t,” he told the paper.

The mayor heard about the pair’s bravery, and said he planned to track them down.

“They threw themselves into the fire to rescue these people. They are real heroes of our time,’’ he said.

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