SPAIN (AFP) - Thirteen students of various nationalities were killed and dozens more injured in Spain on Sunday (March 20) when a bus carrying them back from a popular traditional festival crashed into an incoming car.
The students, who were on a European exchange programme in the northeastern region of Catalonia, came from several countries including Britain, the Netherlands, Ukraine, Switzerland, Norway and Sweden but also Japan and Peru.
Authorities were still determining whether Finnish and New Zealander students were also on board, the regional government said in its latest statement, and it was unclear whether Spanish nationals were among the passengers.
All the dead were female, according to a regional government source who requested anonymity, but authorities have yet to announce their nationalities.
The accident occurred just before 6am (0500 GMT) near the small town of Freginals, about 150 kilometres south of Barcelona, as the students were returning from the Fallas festival in eastern Valencia known for the burning of giant statues.
The bus driver "hit the railing on the right and swerved to the left so violently that the bus veered onto the other side of the highway," said Jordi Jane who heads up interior matters for the Catalonia region.
The bus then hit a car coming in the opposite direction, injuring two people inside, he added.
Spain's Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, who rushed to the scene, said it was still not clear why the bus driver hit the railing in the first place, adding however that the accident was likely due to a "human factor".
An AFP photographer at the scene several hours after the crash said many fire engines were there, as were three hearses and a heavy-lift crane.
The car's front was smashed in, and the bus was lying on its side after the accident.
It was eventually lifted onto a truck and driven away - its windscreen smashed and the back part of its roof caved in.
Of the more than 30 injured, three were in critical condition, the regional government said.
Spain's national radio station RNE spoke to the son of the owner of the company that chartered the bus, who said his father was driving another bus in front of the one that crashed - one of a total of five vehicles ferrying students back from Valencia.
"All of a sudden, he stopped seeing it in his rear-view mirror. He stopped at the next service area, called the driver but he didn't pick up," said the son, named only as Raul.
He added that his father then asked passengers in his own bus to call those in the other vehicle, and that is when he got news of the accident.
"The driver is in a state of shock, but he's okay physically," he added.
Catalonia's high court said in a statement that an initial probe revealed "the bus driver tested negative for drugs and alcohol".
The accident is one of the deadliest in Spain in recent years.
In November 2014, a bus carrying pilgrims fell into a ravine in the southeast of the country, leaving 14 dead and another 41 injured.
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted his concern on Sunday.
"My condolences to the families of the victims and I wish rapid recovery to the injured," he wrote.
Catalonia's newly-elected regional president Carles Puigdemont, meanwhile, visited the area after cancelling a planned trip to Paris.
Joining in mourning for the tragedy, players for Barcelona and Villarreal - which is only around 100 kilometres from the crash site - observed a moment of silence before kick-off, as will those from the Real Madrid and Sevilla later Sunday.