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'Mega-cool' week of skiing and fun for Belgian youngsters on alpine trip, then tragedy strikes
HEVERLEE, Belgium (AP) ' A torch-light march. Ravioli and meatball dinners. Rides in a funicular railway. A sing-a-long and a dress-up casino evening.
Those were some of the things that made last week "mega-cool" for 24 sixth graders at the St. Lambertus school in a hotel in Saint-Luc, high in the Swiss Alps.
The good times turned tragic Tuesday when their bus, which also carried kids from a second Belgian school, crashed inside a Swiss tunnel on its way home. Twenty-two youngsters from the two different schools died, along with six adults.
The dead included "teacher Frank," who had set up the native-language Dutch blog that had kept parents and schoolchildren who stayed home informed about all the fun.
On Wednesday parents were flown to Switzerland to find out whether their children were still alive. Sixteen St. Lambertus students were confirmed to have survived, but the fate of eight others was unknown, at least to their families.
Nine days earlier, they had left for the holiday of their school lives in the snow-covered Alps of Switzerland, an annual highlight for St. Lambertus kids. The school is a typical, small Roman Catholic institution of some 200 pupils in Heverlee, on the outskirts of the old university town Leuven, and represents the broad mix of social classes of the municipality.
The week began flawlessly.
"This is our first blog posting," wrote Frank Van Kerckhove, the teacher who set up the blog. "The bus trip was very smooth. There was little traffic. We watched the movie Avatar (and) no one became car sick on the climb" into the Alps.
In the days that followed, the youngsters posted about their vacation with youthful exuberance.
"This afternoon we had soup and ravioli, very delicious," one girl wrote on March 6.
Relatives of the students were grateful that Van Kerckhove, one of six adults who died in the crash, had set up the site.
"The blog was incredible. It had so many great pictures," said Anne De Roo, whose three children are former students at the school. The fate of her nephew was now uncertain.
"He constantly gave us news about what happened, the sked of the day," she said of Van Kerckhove. His last words came down to 'we see you back soon,'" she said.
The kids would blog under Van Kerckhove's tutelage.
"Today was totally the best. The adventurous walk was tiring, but mega-cool," one girl wrote. "We won first prize for cleanest room. Tomorrow it's going to be colder. Byyyeeee!"
On March 10, another boy wrote: "Things are super here in Saint-Luc. The skiing, the weather, the food. It's not bad at all. Tomorrow I play in the Muppet Show. ... I have seen quite a few dogs. I'm now reading the book 'Why Dogs Have Wet Noses.' Very interesting! I miss you all."
Toward week's end, the posts revealed early signs of homesickness.
"Dear mama and papa. I like it here a lot, but I miss you. Love you. Kisses." And: "Hey, mama, papa ... It is super here and the sun shines the whole day. But I do miss you! XXX."
The posts came with scores of photos the youngsters made during their trip.
On the St. Lambertus school gate Wednesday, staff put up drawings made by students to honor the teacher. "I'll never forget you, Teacher Frank," one read. "You are the greatest ever!"
And outside the school, parents spoke highly of Van Kerckhove. Teary-eyed, some recalled his last post, dated March 11 ' the eve of the return trip.
"Tomorrow will be a busy day and I do not know if I can write a blog posting," Van Kerckhove wrote. "But on Wednesday we'll be back, all of us."
Associated Press writer Robert Wielaard in Brussels contributed to this report.