updated 4/28/2004 10:38:28 PM ET 2004-04-29T02:38:28

A construction backhoe tumbled down a steep hillside and landed on a school bus Wednesday, killing at least 21 elementary students and two adults, officials said.

A crew was towing the large earth mover along a section of road higher up the hill when it rolled off a ledge and plunged 70 feet before crushing the bus on the highway below, said Claudia Cubillos, a spokeswoman for the Bogota Health Ministry, which oversees rescue efforts.

The bus was taking the 7-to-12-year-old students from the Agustiniano school to their homes in the capital’s middle-class Suba district when the accident occurred during the afternoon rush hour. Traffic behind the wreck was backed up for several miles.

Around a hundred emergency workers and police used heavy machinery to try to clear the mangled wreckage. Ambulances with sirens wailing rushed the injured to hospital. There were reports of some children still trapped.

Police, meanwhile, struggled to keep back panicked families desperate to find out if their children were among the victims.

Mayor Luis Eduardo Garzon sped to the scene of the accident by motorbike to show solidarity with the victims and their families.

“This is a dramatic, terrible tragedy,” Garzon told reporters at the scene of the crash.

Sgt. Alberto Cantillo, a spokesman for the Bogota Police Department, said it was not immediately clear whether the two adults were traveling inside the bus. The bus driver survived unharmed, while the backhoe’s driver was in a critical condition.

It was not immediately clear why the excavator tumbled off the road, though witnesses said the driver lost control of the vehicle.

Police said an investigation was under way.

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