RIGA - Latvia had a bitter end to a year of staggering road fatalities and a sobering start of its 2005 New Year festivities when a bus packed with Russian tourists crashed, killing nine people and seriously wounding dozens.
The accident occurred at 5 a.m. on Dec. 31 in the eastern part of the country as a double-decker Eurolines bus, traveling from Moscow to Riga, slid off an icy road and flipped over, flattening the top of the bus "like a pancake," in the words of a top road police official.
Seven of the nine who died were under 30.
The bus driver, whose name is being withheld, has been charged with criminal negligence and placed under house arrest by court order.
Police officials said that the driver was most likely driving too fast considering the icy road conditions, a fact that many of the survivors have confirmed.
Road Police Chief Edmunds Zivtins said that the cause was "undoubtedly a wrong choice of speed." "The bus flipped up in the air and landed on its roof like a pancake," he told the Baltic News Service.
"A criminal case has been launched and until expert results are announced, I do not want to say anything more," said Zivtins, adding that the driver could face a sentence of up to 10 years in jail.
He added that the road was so covered with ice it was "like a mirror."
Jekabpils district police department official Sarmite Daukste said that an initial analysis showed that the driver, a 46-year-old Latvian citizen, had not been under the influence of alcohol. Blood test results, however, were not yet confirmed.
None of the 31 injured passengers, hospitalized in nearby Rezekne, Jekabpils and Riga are in critical condition, although some reportedly have serious injuries.
The bus was carrying 62 tourists - most of whom were between the ages of 21 and 26 - two drivers and a stewardess. Those sitting on the second level of the bus were hit the worst.
According to the Latvian daily Diena, Jekabpils police estimated that the driver was traveling at 80 - 90 kilometers per hour, although this number is not yet official.
Yet while investigators remain convinced that the accident was caused by bad driving conditions and excessive speeding, it is possible that the driver may have been overworked, according to an anonymous letter to the traffic ministry, Diena reported.
The letter criticized Ecolines for scheduling drivers to as many as five back-to-back shifts with only a four-hour break in between.
The bus belonged to Norma A, the international bus operator carrying the Ecolines trademark.
Ecolines Chairman Andris Podgornijs stressed that the company only hired experienced bus drivers who have been "driving these roads all their life."
Not only are police continuing to investigate the case, which deals with a violation of traffic rules and vehicle exploitation regulations, but the road maintenance company has been asked to provide a detailed description of highway conditions.
As of Jan. 4, 13 people were still being treated in various hospitals in Riga, reported the Latvian Emergency Medicine Center.
Three of the injured travelers were discharged from hospitals on Jan. 3, and three more left the local hospital in Jekabpils. A patient at the Riga Stradins University Clinical Hospital needs spinal surgery, although whether the operation will take place in Latvia is not yet known.
If the victim undergoes surgery in Latvia, the costs will have to be paid by the insurer, but in Moscow the state will pay for it, explained a representative of the Latvian Emergency Medicine Center.