Minibus that crashed in France, killing 12 Portuguese, was “illegally adapted”

The six-seater minibus that crashed in central France, killing 12 Portuguese as they made their way home from Switzerland for Easter had been “illegally adapted” to take more than double the number of passengers. The 19-year-old driver was also “too young” to qualify for the necessary passenger transport licence, say reports.

Ricardo Pinheiro is also understood to have only two days before done the opposite 1,786km (Portugal – Switzerland) journey – the inference being that he may have fallen asleep at the wheel.

But as PSD MP Carlos Gonçalves said after travelling to France to lend support, the tragedy serves to highlight “this form of transport used by Portuguese emigrés in Switzerland” when they seek to return home for traditional holidays.

“This should call attention to the conditions in which this type of transport is made,” he said. “We don’t know if it is legal – but the French authorities have already manifested their doubts.”

As the wreck of the Portuguese-registered Mercedes Sprinter is now being meticulously reconstructed so that authorities can determine its level of safety before the accident, the vehicle’s insurers have said that they will not be paying out any compensation, reports national tabloid Correio da Manhã.

With Ricardo Pinheiro likely to face criminal charges, the young man from Aguiar da Beira remains in a psychiatric hospital in France, apparently still unable to talk about the accident and in deep shock. He tested negative for alcohol and, according to friends and neighbours, is used to “making long journeys”, despite having “little experience”.

The only other survivors – the Italian driver and occupant of the truck with which the Sprinter collided head-on outside the village of Moulins just before midnight – have both been treated in hospital and their testimonies taken.

Compounding the situation was the fact that the RCEA (Route Central-Europe Atlantique) is already known locally as “the road of death” due to its “elevated number of accidents”.

According to reports in the Portuguese press, the French government “promised to improve the road by 2011, but five years on it is exactly the same”.

Today (Monday) Portuguese hearses were waiting for the necessary permissions to enter France and collect the bodies for funerals back home.

The victims almost all came from northern areas like Cinfães, Oliveira de Azeméis, Castelo de Paiva and Sernancelhe.

One of the youngest victims, 17-year-old Inês Francisco came from Pombal. Relatives explained that she “normally flew” home, but this time her citizen’s card had expired, and “so as not to have any problems”, she took the decision to book a €150 space on the Sprinter.

With many national figures, including President Marcelo, expressing their sadness over the tragedy, responsibilities and damages are likely to take weeks if not months to sort.

Meantime, a number of families in Portugal have “lost their chief breadwinner”, reports CM.

Road accidents habitually mar the return of Portuguese from emigrant destinations, but Diário de Notícias affirms this was “one of the largest to hit Portuguese on European roads”.

No one knows what made Ricardo Pinheiro swerve into oncoming traffic, hitting the Italian-registered truck head-on – but the fact that the mini-bus had so many people in it and was towing a trailer loaded with luggage will not have made it easy to handle in a swerve.

As reports have explained, the collision was “so violent that the truck ended up off the road – the two vehicles immobilised on top of each other in a ditch”.

CM adds that “everything indicates that the majority of victims were asleep” at the moment of impact.

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