Bulgarian prosecutors said Thursday they had recovered 44 bodies from the site of a tour bus crash, revising down a death toll of 45 in one of Europe's worst accidents in a decade.
A bus full of mostly North Macedonia tourists crashed into highway guardrails and caught fire south of Sofia early Tuesday while returning from Istanbul in Turkey to Skopje.
The passengers were trapped inside the bus, but seven survived after they broke a window and escaped. They have all been hospitalized in Sofia and are in stable condition.
"Autopsies revealed that the victims died mainly as a result of asphyxiation from the fire that broke out... soot was found in their respiratory tracts," deputy prosecutor general Borislav Sarafov told reporters.
Border police records show that there were 52 passengers on board the bus when it entered Bulgaria.
Sarafov said 44 bodies were found at the site of the crash so investigators were still trying to account for one more person.
Four buses were traveling in the group and witnesses said the bus stopped at a gas station and some passengers transferred buses before the accident.
"We presume that one passenger must have moved to another bus," Sarafov said.
Prosecutors believe the bus driver crashed into the guardrails, and the detached guardrail was then dragged on along the asphalt, causing a ball of sparks that ignited the bus.
But they are still probing if "bad road organization, bad signalization and bad markings" might have misled the driver, Sarafov added.
The prosecution has ruled out that a terrorist act or an explosion caused the fire, he said.
The crash is Bulgaria's deadliest, and the worst road accident in Europe in a decade, plunging the country and its southern neighbor into mourning.
Most of the young victims were from North Macedonia. They include a dozen minors with the youngest fatality four-year-old twins, according to media reports.