At least eight Armenians were killed and 42 others injured early on Tuesday when a Yerevan-bound bus carrying them drove off a highway in Russia’s Tula region just south of Moscow.
Citing authorities in Russia, Armenia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations said that 34 of the injured passengers were rushed to hospitals in nearby Russian towns. “According to doctors’ evaluation, nine of the injured persons are in a severe condition,” the ministry said in a statement. “There were no children on the bus.”
The ministry identified five of the victims later in the day. It released the names of virtually all hospitalized passengers.
The statement added that the coach belonging to an Armenian transport company, King Deluxe, went off a highway section about 200 kilometers south of Moscow and flipped over as a result in the early hours of the morning. It said the reasons for the deadly crash are not yet clear.
The RIA Novosti news agency cited Russian police officials in Tula as suggesting that the Chinese-made Higer bus may have broken down during a Moscow-Yerevan service. They also did not rule out the possibility of the bus driver having fallen asleep at the wheel.
Neither Garnik Harutiunian, who was at the wheel during the accident, nor the second driver, Vaghinak Hovakimian, suffered serious injuries. A spokesman for Tula’s police department said they are now being questioned as part of a criminal investigation launched by Russian law-enforcement authorities.
Harutiunian’s father Norik told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that the crashed bus recently underwent month-long repairs in Russia. “I don’t think that the accident happened because of my son’s negligence,” he said.
However, the owner of King Deluxe ruled out the possibility of a mechanical malfunction. “All of our buses undergo appropriate inspections before rides,” Artur Harutiunian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “We don’t let them hit the road if technical shortcomings are detected.”
“If a bus has technical problems on the road, the driver stops it, calls us and we send a replacement,” he said. “There was no such call in this case.”
President Serzh Sarkisian, meanwhile, offered his condolences to the victims’ families in a special statement issued later on Tuesday. “Our people, each of us, suffered a great loss last night,” he said.
Sarkisian said he has instructed Armenian law-enforcement officials to identify the causes of the accident jointly with their Russian colleagues. He said he has also told “relevant bodies” to come up with a set of measures that will “substantially increase” the safety of international bus travel to and from Armenia.
It was announced afterwards that the Armenian government has formed an ad hoc interagency commission “in connection with” the accident. The commission headed by Transport Minister Gagik Beglarian was quick to hold its first meeting in Yerevan. Beglarian announced at the meeting that he will fly to Tula on Tuesday evening to “coordinate work on at the scene with Russian colleagues.”
The loss of life led the largest organization representing Russia’s sizable Armenian community to cancel its annual festive events that were scheduled for Wednesday. “It’s a great tragedy,” said Ara Abrahamian, the chairman of the Union of Armenians of Russia.