Officials said 52 people were on board the bus, mostly citizens of North Macedonia, one of four returning from a trip to Istanbul. Turkey. It hit a highway guardrail in western Bulgaria, caught fire and was confined to a charred shell. Officials said the passengers were trapped as both the exits were blocked.
On Thursday, deputy chief prosecutor and head of Bulgaria’s National Investigative Service, Borislav Sarafov, denied a terrorist act, adding that investigators also established that there was no explosion.
Speaking at a news conference in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, Sarafov said that at the moment “the major version (of events) is human error.”
“The guard rail on the motorway where the accident took place is dangerous and is one of the main causes of the accident,” he said. He said investigators are investigating whether poor organization of highway traffic such as lane marking, lack of proper signs and reflectors may have contributed to the accident.
Principal investigator Marian Marinov said the bus driver had tried to stop before hitting the guard rail, but instead boarded it, probably because it was dark and it was raining.
“Witnesses have said that soon after the first fire broke out, smoke filled the bus,” he said.
“No one could exit through the front door because of the huge fire there. Everyone gathered in front of the second door in the middle of the bus, but it was stopped by the guard rail.
Sarafov said forensic investigators have found a total of 44 bodies so far, one less than the 45 officers initially reported. He called the discrepancy a “mystery” and said investigators were trying to establish whether a passenger had boarded other buses or survived the accident.
It is known that seven people survived – five citizens of North Macedonian, one Serb and one Belgian. He was taken to Pirogov Emergency Hospital in Sofia and is in a stable condition.
Chief prosecutor’s spokesman Siaka Mileva said one of them, who broke a window to escape from the burning bus, testified to prosecutors that eight people had jumped.
Sarafov said on Thursday that the victims died as a result of suffocation from the fire’s smoke, not the effects of the accident. The official said particles of soot were found in his respiratory tract.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov told reporters at the crash site on Tuesday that he had “never seen anything more frightening.” The bodies are to be identified by DNA test.
Media in Bulgaria and North Macedonia called it the deadliest bus accident in the history of both countries.
The North Macedonian authorities have revoked the license of the travel company that organizes the trip and banned its travel operations. Also, two customs officials were suspended as they allowed the bus involved in the accident to cross the border without a vehicle license.
In the northern Macedonian capital Skopje, hundreds of primary school students gathered outside the Ismail Kamali school on Wednesday to pay tribute to the six classmates killed in the crash.
“No one will want what happened – (it’s a) great tragedy,” said Metush Memedi, a school teacher. “We have five children from a family. Two of them were in Class IX, one in Class VIII, one in Class VI and a girl in Class II.”
Vissar Ganu, mayor of the municipality of Chair in Skopje, said 16 of those killed in the accident were from his district.
“I would like to express my condolences to the families, friends and associates of all those who lost their lives in the tragic accident,” Ganu said. “We’re hurting with them too.”
McGrath reported from Bucharest, Romania. Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed.