A school bus veered off a mountain road in India’s Kangra Valley on Monday, tumbling into a deep gorge in the Himalayan foothills and killing at least 27 people — including 23 children — according to local media reports.
Officials fear the death toll will rise in what many consider the worst school bus accident in the region in recent years. The children, students of Wazir Ram Singh Pathania Memorial School in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, were between 5 and 11 years old, according to the Hindustan Times, although other reports say some were as young as 4 and as old as 14.
Kangra officials described a horrific scene in the moments after the crash, which occurred about 300 miles north of New Delhi.
Villagers acted as first responders, rushing to the scene the moment they heard the bus smash into the rocky gorge, officials told the Times. Blood drenched the villagers’ shirts as they carried the children’s bodies in their arms.
“We had to cut open the body of the bus to pull out the victims and survivors,” Santosh Patial, Kangra's police chief, told the newspaper.
Ranveer Singh, 10, was thrown through a window, he told the Hindustan Times.
“I heard a loud bang, and the bus starting rolling down the hill. Just then the window near my seat broke, and I and a girl sitting by my side fell out,” he said.
Rakesh Pathania, a local politician, told the New York Times that 12 children were hospitalized, with one in critical condition.
An investigation is underway into the cause of the accident, BBC News reported.
Suraksha Devi told the BBC that four of her grandchildren were killed in the crash.
“All I have left are photographs of them now,” she said.
Bus accidents are common in India, especially in the hills, where poor infrastructure, deep potholes and a lack of guardrails can present formidable driving conditions.
In early 2017, at least 15 children were killed and 45 others injured after their school bus collided with a truck in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
India has some of the deadliest roads in the world, with more than 200,000 traffic fatalities a year, according to 2013 data from the World Health Organization. The nation’s Supreme Court has called India’s roads “giant killers.” Experts have told The Washington Post that many of those accused in accidents go free because of weak and outdated motor vehicle regulations, routine corruption, lagging investigations and slow court trials.
The Wazir Ram Singh Pathania private school’s bus left campus around 3 p.m. Monday. It had barely been driven four miles when the driver, Madan Lal, lost control of the bus, according to the Times of India. The bus fell at least 200 feet, according to local reports.
Local officials told the Times of India that they are investigating the cause of the crash.
By Monday night, the search for survivors had ended, according to the AP. The bodies of the deceased lay covered in sheets on the floor of the Nurpur mortuary.
“I am deeply anguished by the loss of lives,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet. “My prayers and solidarity with those who lost their near and dear ones in the accident.”
This post has been updated.