A BRITISH coach driver appeared in court in France last night and admitted he may have fallen asleep at the wheel of his vehicle before the crash which killed a teacher and left a schoolgirl in a coma.
Derek Thompson, 47, was charged with manslaughter after the horrific motorway crash in northern France as he drove a party of schoolchildren home from a skiing holiday.
It came after Mr Thompson appeared before an examining judge in the Palais de Justice in the eastern town of Chalons-en-Champagne.
Last night Mr Thompson – who is believed to live with his girlfriend near Tamworth, Staffs – was released on bail pending further inquiries.
Christian de Rocquigny, the Chalons prosecutor, confirmed Mr Thompson had been formally charged with “manslaughter and involuntary causing injuries”.
The hearing was held behind-closed-doors but Mr de Rocquigny said outside court: “While being questioned the driver, having denied falling asleep, has acknowledged that it was possible that he did so.
The majority of the 49 British nationals who were on the coach are back in the UK
“Witnesses who were driving in the area near the coach saw the vehicle repeatedly swerve towards the verge. The tachograph indicates some unexplained variations in speed in the nine minutes before the accident,
“The charges both effectively related to the carelessness of the driver causing injury.”
Mr de Rocquigny said Mr Thompson had been treated for minor injuries. He said that the driver would be free to return to the UK, so long as he did not interfere with witnesses, and returned for a trial, which is likely to be held later this year.
The prosecutor said it had been raining heavily at the time of the accident.
The coach was seen swerving slowly to the right and into a crash barrier before flipping over and ending up in a ditch.
Police said Mr Thompson tested negative for drugs and alcohol.
The coach’s tachograph had not revealed the driver had broken EU regulations for the number of hours which he can spend at the wheel. Mr Thompson was driving a party of Worcestershire school pupils home from a half-term holiday in the Italian resort of Val d’Aosta.
He was arrested shortly after the accident in the early hours of Sunday morning on the A26 motorway 90 miles east of Paris.
Popular teacher Peter Rippington, 59, died and 27 people were hurt.
Last night the devastated parents of Suzie Warner, 13, were keeping a bedside vigil at a hospital in Paris after she fell into a coma. She was said to be “stable” yesterday after undergoing emergency surgery.
Maths and PE teacher Mr Rippington had been in charge of a party from Alvechurch Church of England Middle School.
Mr Rippington’s wife Sharon and daughter Amy were also injured. Last night seven people remained in hospital in France, six serious.
The group of 29 pupils and 19 adults had been travelling to Calais from their annual half-term ski holiday in the resort.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The majority of the 49 British nationals who were on the coach are back in the UK.”
Tragically, Mr Rippington had planned to retire in April after a 30-year career. The ski holiday was set to be his last major school trip.