Image: Victim of bus crash
AP
Relatives and nurses comfort a victim after a bus crash near the town of Yambol east of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, on Thursday.
updated 5/28/2009 2:59:27 PM ET 2009-05-28T18:59:27

A bus careered down a Bulgarian mountainside and plowed through hikers heading to a hilltop religious festival Thursday, killing 16 people and injuring 15, authorities said.

Police said the brakes failed as the bus carrying 19 elderly people from a local care home came down a steep mountain road near the city of Yambol, some 160 miles southeast of Sofia.

The bus hit a crowd of several dozen people climbing to the 1,700-foot Mount Bakadzhik to attend an annual religious feast in a forest chapel to mark Ascension Day later Thursday. The bus finally stopped after crashing into trees in a dense pine forest.

Yambol Mayor Georgi Slavov said 16 people, all Bulgarian nationals, were killed and 15 were being treated in a nearby hospital. Four of the injured were listed in very serious condition, including one of the bus passengers, an 82-year-old woman.

'It was like hell'
Police said the dead were 11 women and four men, all aged over 60, and a 16-year old boy.

"It was like hell as I saw the bus speeding down the road and crashing into the crowd of people," a witness, who was not identified, told Bulgarian state TV. "Thanks to the big trees the bus came to a halt which saved at least the lives of its passengers."

A policeman escorting the churchgoers was among the injured. He was hit by the bus after pushing two women off the road.

The government declared Friday an official national day of mourning for the victims. President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev were traveling to the scene of the accident.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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