Officials say a bus crashed and caught fire in western Bulgaria, killing at least 46 passengers, including 12 children.
At around 02:00 local time, an accident occurred on a highway south-west of Sofia’s city (00:00 GMT).
The bus had a North Macedonian registration and was mostly transporting tourists returning from a vacation to Istanbul, Turkey.
Seven individuals fled from the bus and were treated for burns at the hospital.
Bulgarian Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov, speaking at the accident site, said the victims were badly burnt and described the situation as “terrifying.”
The disaster’s cause was not immediately apparent. Officials in Bulgaria say the bus drove off the highway and tore a 50-meter (164-foot) part of the crash barrier away, although it’s unclear whether this happened before or after it took fire.
A piece of the road where the barrier had been ripped off was seen in the aftermath photos. There were no other automobiles involved in the collision.
According to the mayor of the neighbouring village of Pernik, the freeway in that part was in terrible condition, and there were frequent accidents in the region.
The coach group was returning to the capital Skopje following a weekend holiday excursion to Istanbul, Turkey, according to Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani.
According to Bulgarian media accounts, the vehicle, which was part of a bus convoy, had stopped at a gas station outside Sofia approximately an hour before the tragedy.
Official names for the victims have yet to be released, but officials claimed they included children and young people aged 20 to 30.
Alsat, a Macedonian television channel, published a list of names it said were passengers on the bus. Most, if not all, of the passengers, according to Albania’s foreign minister, were ethnic-Albanians from North Macedonia.
Earlier, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he spoke with one of the survivors, who stated passengers were asleep until an explosion woke them up.
Mr Zaev told Bulgarian media that he and the other six survivors “broke the windows of the bus and managed to escape and rescue themselves.”
The bus, he added, belonged to Besa Trans, a firm that organizes tours around Europe.
Relatives of those who traveled to Turkey with Besa Trans last week gathered outside the firm’s office in Skopje within hours of the accident, eagerly seeking information.
The occurrence, according to Bulgaria’s temporary Prime Minister Stefan Yanev, was “an immense tragedy.”
As he visited the disaster scene, he told reporters, “Let’s hope we draw lessons from this unfortunate tragedy and can prevent similar situations in the future.”
The area surrounding the Struma road accident on Tuesday has been cordoned off. The burnt truck, devastated by the fire, is shown in footage from the site.
“Human error by the driver or a mechanical failure are the two first accounts of the accident,” stated investigating service chief Borislav Sarafov.