Four people were being treated for serious injuries in hospital after a coach carrying Midland schoolchildren home from a ski trip crashed in northern France leaving their “wonderful” teacher dead.
Peter Rippington, 59, - who had been just weeks away from retirement - was killed and dozens of others injured when the bus flipped over and came to rest at the bottom of an embankment near the city of Reims in the Champagne-Ardenne region in the early hours of this morning.
Initial tests on the coach driver, who received minor injuries, showed he was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and local police are believed to be investigating whether he might have fallen asleep at the wheel.
Mr Rippington’s wife Sharon and daughter Amy were also injured in the crash, which involved 29 pupils from Alvechurch Middle School in Worcestershire.
It is not known how many of the seriously injured were children, but hundreds of messages of support have been left on Twitter for a schoolgirl named Suzie who was said to be in a coma.
A statement from the Rippington family said: “We, as a family, are devastated at the tragic loss of Peter, a wonderful husband, father, son, brother, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, friend and teacher.
“We are still extremely concerned about the health of his wife, Sharon, who was injured and is still recovering in hospital in France.
“Sharon is accompanied by her daughter Amy, who escaped the incident with minor injuries.”
Mr Rippington was described as a “one of a kind teacher” by his pupils, who gathered at the school in shock.
Kate Vanderplank, who has two sons who were taught by him, said: “He was a fantastic teacher, really special.
“He was great not just within the school but in the community as well.”
The 43-year-old, who said the teacher had been at the school for “many years” added: “The boys wanted to bring some flowers, they were both in shock.”
Flowers were left outside the school where children will be offered counselling tomorrow, while pupils left an apple with a tribute attached.
It read: “Dear Mr Rip, you will be truly missed. You were a one of a kind teacher and you can never be replaced. You were funny and kind and always made everyone’s day.
“We will love and miss you forever and always.”
A female pupil said: “He was an amazing teacher. You could talk to him about anything. He would just sit and listen.”
A total of 27 people were taken to two local hospitals following the crash, with 22 of those said to have minor injuries.
Interski Snowsport School, the company that arranged the trip, said there were 21 adults on the coach when it crashed on the A26 at Chalons-en-Champagne.
There were two drivers on board, along with six Interski instructors and 13 adults belonging to the school party.
The company said in a statement: “We are saddened and distressed to report the death of a party leader following a coach accident in the Reims area of Northern France at approximately 2.30 GMT on Sunday morning.
“Our thoughts are with the bereaved family and friends, to whom we offer our sincere condolences.
“We also extend our sympathy to the four seriously injured passengers, to 22 passengers with minor injuries and to all others involved in this tragic incident.”
It said a following coach stopped and helped rescue people from the wreckage of the crashed vehicle and alerted the emergency services.
Those who escaped uninjured were cared for by the French Red Cross at a sports complex in the region while a rescue vehicle was dispatched from the UK to bring those fit to travel home.
Images of the dented coach lying on its side without its windscreen were shown on news channels.
The bus was owned by Solus Coaches, which is based in Tamworth, Staffordshire, and was chartered by the ski company.
A spokesman for Solus Coaches said: “We are extremely saddened to learn of the tragic coach accident involving one of our vehicles in the Reims area of northern France at approximately 02.30 CET/GMT this morning.
“Our thoughts are with the bereaved, to whom we offer our sincere condolences.
“We are also obviously highly concerned for the welfare of the injured passengers and all others involved in this incident.”
The Foreign Office (FCO) is investigating the accident and is providing consular assistance to those affected while the British ambassador to France, Sir Peter Ricketts, met with passengers this afternoon.
Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said: “Our thoughts and sincere condolences are with everyone involved in or affected by the tragic coach crash in northern France earlier today.
“The FCO has been operating a reception centre in France and a UK helpline all day and we will continue to assist both those who were on the coach and their families and friends at this difficult time.
“I would like to thank the French emergency services for all they have done.”
The Bishop of Worcester Dr John Inge added: “I was shocked to hear the news of the terrible coach crash in France.
“My thoughts and prayers are with those who have been bereaved, those who have been injured and their families, and all at Alvechurch School, as are the prayers of many people in the diocese of Worcester.”