, FUNDACIÓN, May 20- Colombian authorities have arrested the unlicensed driver who fled his overcrowded bus after it burst into flames, burning to death 33 young children, an official said on Monday.
An evangelical church leader who had chartered the bus was also arrested, prosecutor Luis Gonzalez told a press conference.
The pair will be charged with aggravated manslaughter, he said, as Colombians expressed horror over Sunday’s tragedy in the northern town of Fundacion that involved children aged three to 12.
The driver, who lost two of his own children in the fire, turned himself over to police as families sought to hunt him down following Sunday’s tragedy in which, according to a witness, the bus went up in flames as he refuelled it with a jerrycan.
“A spark caused the fire,” the prosecutor said.
The 56 year old driver, Jaime Gutierrez, was later taken into formal custody, as was Manuel Ibarra, an evangelical church member who chartered the bus.
The children were returning from evangelical church services.
Fundacion Mayor Luz Stella Duran said another 20 were hospitalized, most of them with second- or third degree burns.
Residents of the town had raced to join firefighters to extinguish the raging blaze, but it was too late.
“We wanted to get out a young girl who was holding out her arms by a window, but her skin was peeling off,” witness Jose Guette, 48, told AFP.
“We couldn’t do anything but hold our heads and watch the children burn.”
– ‘Never forget them’ –
On Monday, bamboo crosses had been erected along the road where the bus burned, and glass fragments were still scattered on the ground. A woman was on her knees on the asphalt, wailing.
The mayor has declared three days of mourning and banned alcohol consumption.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who rushed to the scene, said an investigation was under way, while many denounced the accident as an example of Colombia’s poor enforcement of road safety.
“I am shattered and the whole country is in mourning for the death of these children in this tragedy. We will never forget them,” the president said.
Crews pulled small charred bodies from the wreckage and took them to the medical examiner’s office in the regional capital of Barranquilla to be identified — a task which could take days.
The driver gave himself up to police after townspeople hurled rocks at his home.
The prosecutor’s office said the driver had no license.
Transport Minister Cecilia Alvarez said the vehicle had lacked the authorization to provide services since 2012.
“It is an illegal vehicle that also lacked transport insurance,” Alvarez told RCN radio, adding that the initial investigations are leaning toward “driver recklessness.”
The driver apparently used contraband gasoline to refuel the bus, the minister said.
– ‘Tragedy foretold’ –
An 11 year old girl who lost two brothers told local media that the driver left the bus to refuel while his young charges remained on board.
“Sparks flew,” she recalled. “It was then that the driver went to get water and then he left.”
“I broke a window and got my little sister out but I couldn’t save my two brothers.”
The tragedy became a political issue ahead of Sunday’s presidential election, in which Santos is seeking a second term.
Leftist candidate Clara Rojas said the accident “shows the country’s backwardness.”
“It is not only the driver’s irresponsibility. It is also the lack of rigor and presence of the authorities,” she said.
Colombians vented their fury on Twitter, one user with the handle @manialolita calling it “another tragedy foretold” while @ALCISERRATO said “the state does not fulfill its duty.”
Santos said he had ordered national authorities to intervene more directly in road safety to ensure banned vehicles are not circulating.
He said the government would do “everything we can to ensure such regrettable accidents do not happen again.”