Families of nine Málaga coach crash victims formally notified on Sunday night
Expert says safety belts could have saved lives
Messages went out to the families of the nine Finnish tourists killed in Saturday evening’s coach crash in Spain only on Sunday evening, after confirmation by the Spanish authorities of the identities of the victims.
Local police officers and pastors performed the heavy duty after the names of the nine dead - six women, two men, and a six-year-old girl - became clear.
All the victims died at the scene in Benalmádena, near Málaga on the Costa del Sol, after a coach carrying 46 returning Aurinkomatkat holidaymakers and two tour guides was involved in a collision with a Kia sports utility vehicle, the driver of which was under the influence of alcohol.
Several passengers on the coach are still in hospital, and one remains in critical condition.
“Many of the relatives were aware of the impending bad news”, said Göran Wennqvist from the National Bureau of Investigation, Finland’s central criminal police arm.
Wennqvist noted that the process of identifying the victims after the accident had been slowed by the exchange of information between the relevant authorities, and by the fact that many of those injured in the crash were in serious condition and in no state to talk to their doctors.
Seventeen of the injured were still in four hospitals in the Málaga area on Sunday night. The most seriously injured, a woman in her fifties, is in a coma and remains in critical condition.
In spite of the formal notification received from Spain, an NBI forensics and identification team left Finland for Málaga on Sunday night.
Those provisionally identified according to the list of names on the coach’s passenger manifest will be cross-checked on the basis of DNA, fingerprints, or dental records.
The victims came from different parts of the country, though apparently a mjaority were from the Greater Helsinki area, and police are not making the names public.
With the NBI team on the outgoing plane to Málaga were five Finnish Red Cross psychologists who are flying to the scene to help with crisis counselling for those injured and their relatives.
At least one of the dead was holidaying in a large party containing three generations of the same family: grandparents, their children, and their grandchildren. Some of those who lost loved ones have been waiting for information while they were themselves lying injured in hospital.
Also in Málaga now is Dr. Ari Leppäniemi, senior consultant from the Helsinki University Central Hospital’s accident and emergency unit.
He will determine today the condition of the remaining hospitalised patients with a view to seeing whether they require specialised treatment in Finland, and charting a timetable for their possible medivac flights home.
Even in Spain, where road accidents are commonplace and the fatality statistics make very grim reading, this exceptionally large death-toll has prompted strong feelings.
An association for the victims of traffic accidents in the country described the crash as murder and demanded that the driver of the vehicle alleged to have caused the carnage be given a heavy custodial sentence.
On Sunday evening it was still slightly unclear how the crash happened, but the general consensus based on eye-witness statements and police reports seems to be that at around 19:45 the driver of the SUV attempted to overtake the coach - which was driving in the central lane of the six-lane motorway - on the right-hand side.
Road conditions on the A7 motorway between Marbella and Málaga were not good at the time: it was raining heavily, there were high winds, and the road surface was slick.
The road itself is no stranger to accidents: traffic is heavy, many drivers exceed speed limits, and the results are visible in the accident figures.
The SUV driver, who tested with twice the permitted alcohol level in his bloodstream, lost control of the vehicle and it crashed into the low fencing at the side of the carriageway. From there it rebounded back to strike the side of the coach, causing it to go out of control and flip over, striking the steel central reservation of the motorway.
The Spanish driver of the coach was among the injured, and he has no memory whatsoever of what happened. The driver of the SUV was also injured and is under police guard in hospital.
In any event, the speed of both vehicles at the time of impact was enough to cause massive damage to the coach, and it is likely that those killed died almost instantaneously.
One expert has nevertheless pointed to the fact that some coach passengers were wearing seat-belts while others were not.
One male survivor told the Finnish News Agency on Sunday that he and his wife had both been belted up and that they had both survived, while many others were thrown from the wreckage by the force of the impact with the central reservation and when the bus flipped over onto its side.
According to Spanish law, passengers on buses and coaches must use seat-belts if they are provided. In this respect, Spanish legislation matches that in Finland, where it has been compulsory to wear a seat-belt in long-distance coaches since 2006.
The first passengers who were on the bus and who were unharmed or only suffered slight injuries were airlifted home on Sunday night by special flight.
Relatives of the deceased and injured also left for Málaga early on Monday morning. The Monday flight was arranged by the tour operator Aurinkomatkat in collaboration with national carrier Finnair.
Not all those who were fit to travel home on Sunday availed themselves of the opportunity: five stayed behind to be with injured relatives.
There is little that is good that can come out of a tragedy such as this, but at least it appears the Finnish authorities have taken to heart the lessons of a series of disasters dating back to April 1986 and Chernobyl.
The sinking of the Estonia in 1994, the Konginkangas bus crash in March 2004, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean the following December, and the Jokela school shooting last November have obliged state and local officials to design and polish procedures for crisis response and the provision of information to the media and the public.
On this occasion the reaction was brisk and efficient, with the necessary actions being taken within hours of the news of the crash and a press conference held on Sunday morning.
In one respect at least, the timing was on the authorities’ side.
The establishment of a crisis response team could take place almost immediately, as on Saturday evening all the senior Foreign Ministry staff were attending the belated 40th birthday celebrations of the new Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Stubb in Helsinki.
Stubb himself was quick to respond, and recognising that he could move more flexibly this way, he provided an update of the various official actions taken on his own blog before midnight on Saturday, and before the ministry wheels could get moving.
Previously in HS International Edition:
SUNDAY MORNING 1:40: At least nine Finnish tourists dead in Costa del Sol bus crash (20.4.2008)
UPDATED SUNDAY 19:40: First of injured in Spanish bus crash to return to Finland tonight (20.4.2008)