SOFIA, Bulgaria — At least 45 people died when a bus caught fire and crashed on a highway in western Bulgaria on Tuesday, officials said.
The bus had been carrying 52 people, including 12 children, when it swerved through the guardrail on a highway near the village of Bosnek, in western Bulgaria, around 2 a.m. local time, according to the Bulgarian Interior Ministry.
The vehicle had Macedonian plates and had been making a return weekend trip with three other buses from Istanbul to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, the ministry said.
Some people jumped through the vehicle’s windows to escape the flames, local news outlets reported. Victims included the driver and a number of young children.
Photographs from the scene showed the charred remains of the bus on the roadside.
Boyko Rashkov, the Bulgarian interior minister, visited the site of the accident on Tuesday. “The picture is horrifying,” he told reporters, adding that the victims’ bodies had turned to ash, making it difficult to identify them. “I haven’t seen anything like this before.”
Seven survivors with burns and lacerations, including a teenage girl, were taken to Pirogov Hospital in Sofia, Maya Argirova, head of the burn clinic there, told reporters. The injured are in good condition and will be transported to Skopje when they have fully recovered, according to hospital officials.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia visited the hospital on Tuesday.
“It is a terrible tragedy because many of them are children,” Mr. Zaev said of the victims, adding that he had spoken to one of the injured who had managed to break a window of the bus and help several people escape. “He explained that they were sleeping on the bus when a loud explosion was heard,” Mr. Zaev said.
The cause of the fire is not yet known, but the Bulgarian authorities said that they were working swiftly to investigate the accident.
Stanislav Vladimirov, mayor of Pernik, a Bulgarian town close to the site, said that accidents were common in the area because of the notoriously dangerous roads.
“This is one of the most difficult routes in the country,” he told reporters. “The road there has a very steep grade.”
Bulgaria has the second-highest rate of road traffic deaths in the European Union, after Romania, according to Eurostat, the bloc’s statistical agency. In 2019, Bulgaria reported 90 road traffic fatalities per million inhabitants. The European Union average for that year was 51 per million.
In 2018, a tourist bus carrying 33 pilgrims from a village north of Sofia crashed on the way to a monastery, killing at least 16 people and injuring 26 others.
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