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NOTRE-DAME-DE-MESAGE, France (Reuters) - At least 26 Polish pilgrims died on Sunday when their coach crashed off a mountain road at a notorious accident blackspot in the French Alps and burst into flames, police and officials said.
A further 24 people were injured, 14 critically, when the coach smashed through a roadside barrier on the steep Laffrey gradient, some 30 km (19 miles) from the southeastern city of Grenoble, after apparently suffering problems braking.
The coach plunged 40 metres (130 feet) down the slopes before coming to rest on the banks of the Romanche river.
Most of the victims perished in the fire, said emergency officials, and DNA forensic experts from Paris would be needed to identify the bodies.
Several bodies were laid out beneath white sheets on the grassy river banks, the wrecked coach smouldering in the background as fire crews doused it with foam. Helicopters and emergency vehicles ferried the injured to hospital in Grenoble.
Reports said the Poles, from the Szczecin area of northwest Poland, had been due to return home on Tuesday after two weeks of pilgrimage in Spain and France.
"My daughter got in touch with me. She's got a broken leg and collarbone and head injuries and is badly shaken up," Poland's TVN24 quoted a weeping Malgorzata Wachowiak as saying of her daughter, Karolina, aged 22.
Robert Caban, owner of the Polish transport firm that hired out the coach, told the Polish news agency PAP the drivers were experienced and the 7-year-old Scania coach had passed technical inspections recently in Germany.
France's LCI television quoted him as saying he had alerted his men to the route's dangers. He said he had driven the coach himself recently and its brakes had then worked well.
Angry locals called for action to prevent more deaths on the steep stretch of road and President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited survivors in hospital with Polish counterpart Lech Kaczynski, promised action once an official investigation was complete.
"For the moment we don't now exactly what happened, but what's is certain is that it was an extremely serious disaster which cannot remain without a response," Sarkozy told reporters.
Kaczynski thanked Sarkozy and medical staff for their efforts, before adding: "The worst thing is that this type of accident has happened before in the same spot."
A presidential aide, Maciej Lopinski, earlier told PAP the victims' families would receive financial support from a special presidential fund.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who visited the crash site, said the Polish coach did not appear to have a permit for the dangerous stretch of road, a rule imposed after a spate of crashes in the 1970s left scores dead.
Black tyre marks stretching several yards were visible on the tarmac approaching the accident spot, and a local public prosecutor quoted witnesses as saying they had seen sparks flying from underneath the vehicles moments before it left the road. Other witnesses reported an unusual black smoke.
Investigators are expected to focus on the braking system and speed of the coach, and will want to speak to the second driver who survived the smash.
Additional reporting by Jon Boyle, Sophie Louet, Guy Kerivel and Rob Strybel