Rome - Italian authorities were on Monday tackling the difficult job of identifying the dead after one of the country's worst bus crashes, as the death toll rose to 39, reported Transportation Minister Maurizio Lupi.
The scene of the crash - an embankment 30m below an elevated highway east of Naples - was strewn with bloody towels and seats that were ejected after the bus crashed through a barricade and off the highway late on Sunday.
In a gymnasium in the nearby town of Monteforte Irpino, family members gathered at a makeshift morgue to identify their loved ones. Many of them had only heard about the accident from television reports.
The cause of the accident was unclear. One survivor reported that a tyre blew out, while investigators are checking whether the brakes failed, as there were no skid marks at the scene of the crash.
According to reports, the bus driver tried hard to keep the bus under control immediately before the accident, ramming multiple vehicles on Highway 16 near Naples. The bus then scraped along a concrete wall before breaking through a barricade and falling 30m.
There were 48 passengers on the bus. Of the survivors who have been brought to hospital, six were children. There were also 14 injuries reported among the cars rammed by the bus in the moments before the crash.
Driver among dead
"The rescue work was very difficult because all that remained of the bus was a wreck, with the passengers trapped between the metal sheets," fire company commandant Alessio Barbarulo told the Ansa news agency.
The bus broke into two pieces upon impact, with several of the passengers ejected a distance.
The passengers - reportedly a group of acquaintances that had been travelling together for three days - were apparently returning from a trip to a spa when the accident occurred. They were said to be almost home at the time.
Earlier reports that they were on their way back from a pilgrimage could not be confirmed. Also unconfirmed were reports that many of the passengers were children or youths.
The driver was among the dead. His corpse must now be screened for alcohol or drugs.
"This is a sad day," said Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who cancelled plans for a trip to Greece. "There are no words for this."