BY ANNA ARCO
PRAYERS and mourning followed the deaths of 26 Polish pilgrims in the French Alps in a tragic coach accident last Sunday.
Poland's President Lech Kaczynski declared three days of national mourning last Monday after a coach canying 50 Polish pilgrims crashed down a ravine in the Isere region of France.
Twenty-six were killed and 24 were injured when the bus lost control in the notoriously dangerous mountain pass Laffrey.
They were returning home after a two-week pilgrimage to the shrines of Spain, Portugal and France, and had visited Notre Dame de La Salette on the Saturday night as one of the last stops on their journey. There were three priests on board and two of them were suspected to be among the casualties.
As of Sunday afternoon the communities of Szczecin and Stargard Szczencinski, home to most of the pilgrims in the coach accident, had set up crisis centres. Impromptu prayer vigils were held across the country and the doors of St Mary of Stargard Szczecin were kept open late into the night m order to accommodate the faithful who had come to
In Warsaw on Sunday evening a Mass celebrated in St Anne's Church dedicated to the victims of the accident attracted large crowds.
On Monday a Mass was celebrated in the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army for 500 mourners and was attended by President Kaczynski who had returned from his emergency visit to France.
White candles were placed on the marble steps going up to the altar to commemorate those who had died.
In France there was also mourning for the Polish pilgrims and some 200 people filled the Notre Dame Cathedral in Grenoble, 25 miles north of La Salette.
The Mass was bilingual in French and Polish and concelebrated by Fr Michael Farradou , the Vicar General of the Grenoble diocese, and Fr Michel Smuck who was representing the Archbishop of Szczecin.
At Our Lady of Salette, pilgrims celebrated a Mass in memory of the Poles who had been there only a day before.The shrine's website posted a message of condolence to those who had been wounded or killed and their bereaved loved ones, both in French and in Polish.
President Kaczynski flew to France and visited the victims of the crash on Sunday evening in the Hospital at Grenoble accompanied by France's President Nicolas Sarkozy who expressed his condolences.
Families of the victims were flown to France by the Polish government.
The coach driver did not have a permit to drive on the road at Laffrey, which had a 12 per cent gradient and was closed to coaches and heavy vehicles with the exception of those with permits. In the 1970s the accident blackspot saw several accidents including a Belgian coach crash which killed 43 people.
One survivor had said the driver had screamed "Hold on to your seats, the brakes are gone!" before the bus slammed into a guard rail and plunged down the ravine. The accident has raised questions about the safety of Polish coach operators. Poland, which is 95 per cent Catholic, has a lively tradition of coach pilgrimages, with religious tourism the bread and butter of many Polish travel agencies and coach operators. June saw another fatal coach accident in Hungary which killed seven people.
President Kaczynski said there would be "a very stringent control on transport societies and agencies specialised in this sort of travel".
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