Officials believe the tourist bus hit the highway rails and caught fire

Sofia (AFP) - Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Kosovo mourned Wednesday over one of Europe’s worst road crashes that killed 46 as harrowing testimony emerged of tourists trapped inside the burning bus.

Officials believe the tourist bus crashed into the highway rails and caught fire near Sofia early Tuesday while returning from Istanbul in Turkey to North Macedonia’s Skopje.

Only seven survived, managing to break a window and jump out, according to initial accounts.

Many of the passengers were ethnic Albanians aged 20-30 and included a dozen minors with the youngest fatality four-year-old twins, according to media reports.

Bulgaria declared Wednesday a day of mourning after the tourist bus tragedy

“Today is a day of mourning,” Bulgarian Interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev said as he lead a minute of silence at the start of a government session Wednesday.

Investigators were sifting through the ashes of the burned out vehicle, to determine whether a technical defect or human error caused the disaster. It remained unclear exactly how many people were aboard.

- ‘Like a horror movie’ -

The survivors were hospitalised in Sofia and in stable condition, despite their injuries and bad burns, according to Maya Argirova, head of the Pirogov burns clinic.

Pssenger Lulzim Sulejmani recounted how the bus hit something on the right, the wheels burst and the fire spread before the bus moved left and came to a halt.

Investigators are trying to work out the exact cause of the accident

“There was a lot of smoke… People started to throw up, scream, like in a horror movie,” the 26-year-old from Presevo, Serbia, told TV Klan Macedonia.

“I managed to escape because I took the hammer from the bus and broke the glass. I took my fiancee and five more people.”

His fiancee, Medina Lutfi, 25, said she also jumped out the window.

“I was sleeping and suddenly I heard fellow passengers crying and screaming… There was black smoke, an explosion like a bomb… I heard children crying, there were a lot of children,” Lutfi said.

A nightguard at a nearby construction site, Iliya Nikolov, said he heard a “boom”, was among the first on the scene and called emergency help.

Map of Bulgaria locating the village of Bosnek near where dozens of people were killed in a bus accident on Tuesday. Includes starting and end point of the planned bus route from Istanbul to Skopje in North Macedonia.

“We ran down the road… and there was something burning in the guardrails. The fire was smaller in the beginning but then the back of the bus flamed up,” Nikolov told bTV.

- ‘Tragic loss of lives’ -

The bus – registered with the Besa Trans tourist agency, which organises tours to Istanbul – was the last of four from the same company that travelled together, according to reports.

North Macedonia’s transport minister told reporters on Tuesday that the vehicle was not registered for international transport.

Several world leaders sent condolences over the tragic accident.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted about “the tragic loss of life”.

“Our hearts go out to all those in mourning, and we wish a speedy recovery to the injured,” he said.

Bulgaria has a history of deadly bus crashes, but Tuesday’s disaster was the worst, according to officials, and the worst in Europe in the past decade.

Road accidents in Bulgaria have often been attributed to poor road conditions, outdated cars and speeding.

Tuesday’s accident occurred on a notorious section of highway with steep gradients and without clear demarcation lines.