16 dead after bus falls off cliff in St. Lucia

A view of Castries, St. Lucia taken on March 7, 2008. Chris Jackson/Getty Images

CASTRIES, St. Lucia - A minibus carrying mourners from a funeral plunged off a cliff into the ocean in the eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia, killing 16 people, authorities said Friday.

The dead include an infant, a pregnant woman and the bus driver, 47-year-old Michael Alexander, who apparently missed a turn in the road and plunged 50 feet down a cliff, said Chief Fire Officer Lambert Charles.

A young girl who was found alive in the debris died en route to a hospital, he said.

Crews are still looking for a 17th person they say is missing.

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Police said they are investigating what caused the Thursday night accident in the southwest village of Choiseul that shocked this island of approximately 160,000 people.

Foreign Minister Rufus Bousquet, who represents Choiseul in Parliament, described the accident as "a human tragedy of unprecedented proportions."

All the dead were from Fond-Lor, within the community of Dugard in the village of Micoud on the island's east coast, said Police Corporal Trevor Constantine.

Fond-Lor is an impoverished but tight-knit community of about 350 residents that once had a thriving banana industry. Hundreds of neighbors there sang hymns and held an overnight vigil clutching 17 candles in memory of those killed, Education Minister Arsene Vigil James told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

"They know each other, so any calamity within that community, all the people there would feel a sense of sadness," he said. "It was a very grave accident, one that we have not heard of in the history of transportation of St Lucia."

James, a legislator who represents Micoud South, said he visited Fond-Lor early Friday and spoke at a primary school that lost three students in the accident. Psychologists met with students before the school closed early, like others in the region.

Lorena William, a 55-year-old resident of Dugard, said in a phone interview with the AP that her cousin was among those who died. She said the driver's three children and his girlfriend also were aboard the bus, as well as a family of five and two twin boys.

"All the people were very close neighbors," she said. "I know everybody."

William said she was planning to visit Fond-Lor on Friday afternoon.

"I just could not take it," she said. "That's why I haven't gone there."

Charles said bodies were strewn across the beach at the scene of the accident.

Home Affairs Minister Guy Mayers broke the news during a public meeting Thursday night in the eastern village of Dennery. He asked for a minute of silence.

On Friday, both major parties announced they were suspending campaigning for the Nov. 28 general election.

"We pray that the families and our country find strength and courage to cope with this tragedy and hope that we can all unite in compassion and love," the ruling United Workers Party said in a statement.

Kenny Anthony, leader of the main opposition St. Lucia Labor Party, said he could not find the words to express his feelings.

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