NOTRE-DAME-DE-MESAGE, France (Reuters) -- Twenty-six Polish pilgrims died when their coach crashed off a mountain road at a notorious accident black spot in the French Alps and burst into flames, police and officials say.
Emergency officials say most of the passengers who died perished in the fire.
Another 24 people were injured, 14 critically, when the coach smashed through a roadside barrier on the steep Laffrey gradient, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the southeastern city of Grenoble.
The coach careened 40 meters down the slopes before coming to rest on the banks of the Romanche river. Most of the victims died in the fire, said emergency officials, and DNA forensic experts from Paris would be needed to identify the bodies.
Television pictures showed several bodies laid out under white sheets on the river banks, the coach smoldering in the background as fire crews doused it with foam.
Several helicopters and a fleet of emergency vehicles ferried the injured to hospital in Grenoble in an operation that mobilized 60 police as well as fire-fighters.
Robert Caban, owner of the Polish transport firm that hired out the coach, told the Polish news agency PAP the drivers were experienced and the 7-year-old Scania coach had passed technical inspections recently in Germany.
France's LCI television quoted him as saying that he had alerted his men to the route's dangers. He said he had driven the coach himself recently and its brakes had then worked well.
Reports said the Poles, from the Szczecin area of northwest Poland, had been due to return home on Tuesday after two weeks on pilgrimage in Spain and France.
"My daughter got in touch with me. She's got a broken leg and collarbone and head injuries and is badly shaken up," Poland's TVN24 quoted a weeping Malgorzata Wachowiak as saying of her daughter Karolina, aged 22.
"It is a dangerous road, so dangerous that coaches that don't have the authorization to take it, which seems to be the case here, are banned from taking it," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told reporters after visiting the scene.
"Doubtless the best thing to do is ensure that this type of vehicle does not take such a difficult route as this."
Gendarme [police] Lt. Col. Thierry Rousseau said: "Witnesses spoke of a problem with the braking system, an unusual black smoke." Local officials said the coach's speed may also have been a factor in the accident.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent a message of condolence to his Polish counterpart Lech Kaczynski and would meet the Polish president at Grenoble airport when he arrived later on Sunday, the French presidency said.
Maciej Lopinski, an aide to the Polish president, told PAP that the victims' families would receive financial support from a special presidential fund.
Sunday's accident happened close to where a Belgian coach crashed in July 1973, killing 43 people.
Robert Caban, owner of the transport firm that hired out the coach, told PAP the drivers were experienced and the seven-year-old Scania coach was in good condition.
"Ahead of the pilgrimage the coach underwent a thorough check-up in Germany and everything was in order. Before going on the pilgrimage it had traveled to Spain, and everything was in order," PAP quoted him as saying.
Polish television said the Polish pilgrims were from parishes in the Szczecin area of northwestern Poland, who were due to return home on Tuesday. E-mail to a friend
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