The survivors of a bus inferno that killed at least 46 people scrambled to safety through a window after the vehicle caught fire and crashed in Bulgaria, officials say.
Seven people escaped with burns from the vehicle, which was packed with mostly Macedonian tourists.
While returning from Istanbul, Turkey, to North Macedonia, the bus collided with a barrier and caught fire.
Twelve children were killed, including four-year-old twin boys.
Only four men and three women survived the accident, which occurred early Tuesday on a highway south-west of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.
The magnitude of the loss has caused shock and grief in Bulgaria and North Macedonia, which have declared three days of national mourning.
The crash was described as “horrifying” by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.
“I met the injured in a Bulgarian hospital. When I heard the cry of a father who had lost [his] child, my heart broke “Mr Zaev stated to the BBC.
The Prime Minister stated that he spoke with one of the survivors, who stated that passengers were sleeping when the sound of an explosion woke them up.
“They were successful in breaking one of the windows, saving a few people. Regrettably, the rest did not succeed “Mr. Zaev stated to reporters.
The disaster’s cause was not immediately apparent. According to Bulgarian officials, the bus swerved off the highway and ripped a 50m (164ft) section of the crash barrier away.
However, it is unclear whether the bus caught fire before or after the crash. The accident involved no other vehicles.
Pictures of the aftermath showed a section of road where the crash barrier had been severed and a charred bus that had been gutted by fire.
According to the mayor of the nearby village of Pernik, the motorway in that section was in poor condition, and there were frequent accidents in the area.
The bus was returning to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, from a weekend holiday trip to Istanbul.
It was apparently travelling as part of a convoy of four buses and had stopped about an hour before the accident at a gas station near Sofia. The other buses, which were a few minutes ahead of us, arrived safely in North Macedonia.
A painful loss of life for Macedonians
Saska Cvetkovska for BBC News in Skopje, North Macedonia
The reaction to this tragedy has been consistent on social media and elsewhere: this should not have happened.
Every year, far too many people are killed in road accidents in North Macedonia.
When a bus carrying workers to Macedonia’s capital crashed in February 2019, 15 people were killed and more than 30 were seriously injured.
The accident drew a lot of political attention, and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government promised to look into how transportation companies were licenced. Many Macedonians were outraged and disappointed when the news of Tuesday’s accident broke.
Many people believe that promises made to keep people safe on the roads have not been kept. In the 2019 bus crash, Nikola Atanasovski lost a cousin.
“All I could think this morning was, ‘Of course, this has happened again.’ But it shouldn’t be. I am enraged “He informed me.
Many people blamed the authorities in 2019. But this feels different.
It’s especially heartbreaking to lose so many young lives in a country where so many people see their future abroad.
Macedonians believe that any loss of life is unaffordable. We lost nearly 50 people today.
The victims have not yet been officially identified, but officials said they included 12 children and a large number of young people aged 20 to 30.
According to one man who spoke to the Sloboden Pecat newspaper, ten of his relatives died in the disaster.
The man was quoted as saying, “I lost my entire family in the fire.”
Five students from a primary school in Skopje, as well as a young couple who were about to marry, were also killed, according to Macedonian media.
According to Macedonian media, Gazmend Ukali, 27, and Albina Beluli, 23, of the northwestern town of Tetovo, travelled to Istanbul to celebrate Ukali’s birthday.
According to Albania’s foreign minister, the majority, if not all, of the passengers were ethnic Albanians from North Macedonia.
Adnan Yasharovski stated that his 16-year-old daughter Zuleikha called him to inform him that she had survived the crash. Mr Yasharovski told Reuters that he travelled to Sofia to see her in the hospital.
“She was sobbing. Her hands were burned but otherwise unharmed “Outside the hospital, he stated. “She didn’t say much because she was crying and in shock.”
Besa Trans, a travel company that organises trips throughout Europe, owned the bus.
Within hours of the crash, relatives of people who travelled to Turkey with Besa Trans last week gathered outside the company’s Skopje office, anxiously seeking information.
Bulgaria’s interim Prime Minister, Stefan Yanev, called the incident a “huge tragedy.”
“Let us hope that we can learn from this tragic incident and prevent similar incidents in the future,” he told reporters as he visited the crash site.
According to Borislav Sarafov, chief of the investigation service, “human error by the driver or a technical malfunction are the two initial versions for the accident.”
According to Mr Sarafov, both drivers appeared to have been killed in the crash, so no one was able to open the doors.