Sierre, Switzerland, March 2012
There were 52 on board, 28 people perished, 22 of them were children. The other 24 pupils, all aged between 10 and 12, were injured, including three who were hospitalized with severe brain and chest injuries.
The exact cause of the crash has never been determined. The driver, Geert Michiels (34), also perished in the crash. An investigation showed that Michiels was not intoxicated.
A full investigation into the crash was carried out by Swiss Chief Prosecutor Olivier Elsig, the results of which were inconclusive. He ruled out the involvement of a third party, shortcomings in the road surface or the tunnel infrastructure. Excessive speed, alcohol or technical problems with the vehicle were also ruled out. He, at no point, could determine whether or not Geert Michiels carried out an act of homicide/suicide with the vehicle. In fact the final report leaves more questions than it does answers.
Michiels had driven the coach through a tunnel, he mounted the curb, made no attempt to apply the brakes, and crashed head-on into a short wall. Photographs of the scene were taken by one of the parents whose daughter was killed in the crash. Her photo’s, taken whilst visiting the tunnel sometime after the tragedy, show how Michiels mounted the pavement and made no attempt to steer the coach back into the road, opting instead to drive straight into a wall. (Photos here)
Just by looking at the photos of the scene one has to ask why Michiels did not steer the bus to the right upon mounting the curb. One also has to ask why he never took his foot off the accelerator and, more importantly, never applied the brakes. As humans we have a basic instinct of survival, it kicks in when our lives are put in danger. Imagine, if you will, a pool of water. You are swimming blissfully when an undercurrent starts to pull you down. Do you fight for survival or do you just relax and let the current pull you under?
Michiels mounted the curb (Fig 1) and continued to travel at a rate of 99/101km (about 62mph) – I refer to my pool analogy – what happened to Michiels survival instinct?
The autopsy results of Geert Michiels (above), revealed that his left coronary artery was blocked at least 60 percent due to fat deposits. This disease (atherosclerosis) can lead to heart rhythm disturbances or even a heart attack. The autopsy also revealed traces of paroxetine in the system, paroxetine is the generic name of Seroxat, also known as Paxil.
According to information Michiels had been taking Seroxat for several years, he had been prescribed it as, at the time, he was going through a divorce. However, he was, at the time of the accident, in the process of tapering off. (more on this later). Furthermore, during the initial investigation, it was learned that Michiels took the drug for two years and that the standard dose was reduced by half in early 2012. The intention was to eventually phase out the use completely. If the standard dose was 20mg then a reduction of 10mg could possibly have been too drastic.
Unsatisfied with the findings of Swiss Chief Prosecutor Olivier Elsig, the parents of some of the children, who died in the crash, employed the services of the Dutch-based forensic agency Independent Forensic Services (IFS).
IFS found that Michiels made two clear movements seconds before the crash, consciously and with the intention of running the bus into the wall of the tunnel.
“The driver at no time lost control of the steering wheel,” IFS researcher Selma Eikenboom told Dutch TV. “He made those movements consciously, with some force. Then he drove straight on for several seconds and into the wall. That’s not something you do if you’re feeling faint.” Asked if this demonstrated his suicidal intent, she said. “That’s a conclusion you may draw for yourself. This is technical evidence that speaks for itself.”
According to Dutch lawyer Job Knoester, acting for the parents, Michiels’ medication, Seroxat or paroxetine, has been implicated in cases of suicide and serious aggression aimed at others. “If you know that, then the matter has to be investigated,” he said. “It seems as if the Swiss didn’t want to look into the question at all.”
Armed with this new evidence the parents applied to the Swiss courts, in essence they wanted the investigation reopened. The federal tribunal dismissed the appeal.
Lawyer Job Knoester from The Hague, counsel for some parents, said after the dismissal of the appeal, “The parents want to know why their children died.” He added that the Swiss court never carried out their own reconstruction of the disaster and no research had been done on the side-effects of Seroxat.
In February, 1998, Don Schell (60), a non-violent family man and doting grandfather, took a .22 calibre pistol and a 357 magnum in the middle of the night and shot dead the three people in the world dearest to him – his wife Rita, his daughter Deb and baby Alyssa. Then he killed himself.
In 2001, a jury of five women and three men ruled that taking Paxil was the proximate cause of the deaths of Schell and his wife, daughter and granddaughter. The jury ruled that GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturers of Paxil, were 80 percent responsible for the deaths. It held Schell 20 percent responsible. (Source)
In 2004, while taking the antidepressant Paxil, Toronto fitness expert David Carmichael took his 11-year-old son Ian to a hotel room in London, Ont., and strangled him.
Charged with first-degree murder, Carmichael was found not criminally responsible because of a mental disorder and transferred to the Brockville Mental Health Centre. On Dec 4, 2009, he received an absolute discharge from the Ontario Review Board.
According to Health Canada: “A small number of patients taking drugs of this type may feel worse instead of better … They may experience unusual feelings of agitation, hostility or anxiety, or have impulsive or disturbing thoughts that could involve self-harm or harm to others.”
David’s website, which goes into detail of the tragedy can be viewed here. A 10 minute segment aired by CTV W-Five regarding David’s story can also be viewed here.
The two cases are striking. In the Schell case we have a jury pretty much speaking for the dead to protect the living. In the Carmichael case we have the evidence given by the actual person responsible for the homicide.
Geert Michiels holds all the answers to the fatal Sierre coach crash, yet, it appears, nobody is willing to investigate the link between Seroxat and homicide/suicide. Nobody is willing to allow Michiels to give his version of events from beyond the grave.
Swiss Chief Prosecutor Olivier Elsig’s final report told us nothing, in fact, the report just tells us what didn’t cause the crash. Investigations like this are all about eliminating so one can arrive at a conclusion – the report was inconclusive. At no point, has Elsig investigated the possible link between Seroxat and homicide/suicide, it begs the question, why?
Geert Michiels was employed by De Lijn Vlaams-Brabant, a company run by the Flemish government in Belgium to provide public transportation. The coach he was driving on that fateful evening was owned by TopTours in Belgium. I wrote the following email to them…
I am doing some research into tour bus driver protocols with regard to driving whilst under the influence of prescription medication.
Do TopTours have any protocol in place where driver’s are either…
a) required to let TopTours know that they are on medication
b) required to stay off work until they have finished their course of prescription medication.
I have more questions but this will do for now.
Thanks in advance for your reply.
TopTours failed to reply.
I find it quite remarkable that the investigation failed to look into the fact that Michiels was tapering from a drug known to cause severe withdrawal problems, problems that have been, for years, downplayed by the manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline. In fact, it recently came to light that Glaxo had known about the withdrawal problems (in adults) for some years, but failed to carry out their own clinical studies into this problem, furthermore, they kept this information from the public (See Seroxat – Project 1059 Laden With Withdrawal Problems)
If reports are correct that Michiels dosage of Seroxat had been halved in efforts to wean him off then we have a potential time bomb. The reduction of Seroxat by half was poor advice. I, myself, struggled tapering off Seroxat – it took me around 19 months just to taper from 40mg per day to 22mg per day – I was using the liquid formulation of Seroxat and tapering by just 0.5 mg per week. In the end, I went cold turkey and suffered horrendous side effects, one of which was seeking confrontation – I actually went out into a country park in the early hours of the morning looking/hoping I would encounter trouble. It’s all detailed in my book, The evidence, however, is clear, the Seroxat scandal.
Furthermore, Michiels and his wife, Evy Laermans, were allegedly at loggerheads with his decision to drive coaches. Michiels worked part-time but had, unbeknownst to Laermans, asked the coach company if they could offer him a full-time position. Laermans knew nothing about this as her speech at a commemoration for the victims shows. She said that Geert was giving up and that he was killed during one of his last trips. (Source)
Could the disagreements between Michiels and his wife have led to him deliberately crashing the coach, could this irrational thinking have been brought on by the reduction of Seroxat?
Going cold turkey on Seroxat is not recommended, the side-effects are too severe. And here’s where the investigation failed.
This from Michiels wife…
He (Michiels) had taken no pill taken before the accident.
Michiels was in withdrawal, this fact is unquestionable.
The current patient information leaflet for Seroxat says..
Possible withdrawal effects when stopping treatment.
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady or off-balance
- Feeling anxious
- Feeling restless or agitated
- Tremor (shakiness)
- Feeling confused or disorientated
- Visual disturbances
The patient information leaflet is written by GlaxoSmithKline, there is no mention of Seroxat causing completion of suicidal or homicidal acts in adults. They do, however, say…
Some people have had thoughts of harming or killing themselves while taking Seroxat or soon after stopping treatment. Some people have experienced aggression while taking Seroxat.
“Soon after stopping treatment” is the key here.
If Michiels, as his wife suggested, had stopped taking his treatment then, even the manufacturer of Seroxat claim, “Some people have had thoughts of harming or killing themselves while taking Seroxat or soon after stopping treatment.”
Why was this overlooked by Swiss Chief Prosecutor Olivier Elsig?
And what of Michiels treating physician? Was he interviewed at any stage of the original investigation – he, assuming it was a he, could have thrown light on the exact dose of Seroxat Michiels was taking, he/she could have also explained why he/she decided to tell Michiels to reduce his dosage by half – what protocol was Michiels physician following here?
Here we have a bunch of parents wishing for answers – they are each left in limbo until they get these answers. Every stone must be turned, every nook and cranny should be delved into. You cannot just dismiss something on a whim then move on to other matters in an investigation. It’s half-assed to claim that this was just an “accident” when such stark evidence exists that there may be more to it than that.
It must also be noted that we have a grieving wife too. Evy Laermans lost her husband on that fateful night so she too should deserve some respect here. She, rightly so, is defending the name of her husband. It would be difficult for any of the parents to feel any sympathy or indeed empathy for Michiels. Whatever way you paint it, he was in charge of the motor vehicle when it crashed. There are other factors here too. The finger of blame, or partial blame, could be pointed at Michiels doctor for suggesting such a drastic taper – then of course we have the pharmaceutical company that market and manufacture Seroxat – GlaxoSmithKline. They are, it appears covered though. The small, insignificant warning on the patient information leaflet is almost like a disclaimer for such tragedy’s.
In the case of Don Schell (above) we saw the jury return a verdict. They attributed 80% of the blame to Seroxat manufacturers GlaxoSmithKline and 20% of the blame to Don Schell. The Swiss Chief Prosecutor Olivier Elsig has took the easy way out here, he has laid no blame on anyone, to do so would, no doubt, cause conflict, especially where GlaxoSmithKline are concerned. Elsig is sitting on the fence, he’s not wishing to rock the boat and this attitude is hindering the process of grief for the parents.
This case should be reopened. We may never be able to determine if Seroxat played a part in this tragedy but we should certainly put it on the table and, for the record, state that it may have induced a psychotic episode in Michiels. It needs to be an official statement here and not one of grieving parents, who will always be seen as people unwilling to accept that this was just an “accident”, nothing more, nothing less.
Operating any form of transport whilst under the influence of mind-altering drugs should also be looked into. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) don’t allow pilots on certain medications to operate aircraft, why, then, should coach companies be any different? In fact, back in 2010, the FAA cited Paxil as having a “severe withdrawal syndrome.”
With this knowledge, is it feasible to suggest that the coach company who hired the services of Michiels need to, at the very least, put something in place so no driver under the influence of psychiatric medication, is ever allowed to operate one of their vehicles again?
People should be talking about the possibilities in this case and not brushing them under the carpet. I doubt if the parents will ever find conclusive proof that Michiels deliberately crashed the coach into a brick wall, I doubt, if, indeed, Michiels did crash the coach deliberately, that the families will be able to determine whether or not Seroxat played a part in his decision making. It should, at the very least, be investigated and maybe listed as a possible causation.
I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Jaws. Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is an expert in the field of sharks and shark attacks.
Hooper, examining the remains of the first victim, describes the post-mortem into his tape recorder.
Hooper: [to the m.e. and Brody] This was no boat accident!
Hooper: [to Brody] Did you notify the Coast Guard about this?
Brody: No. It was only local jurisdiction.
Hooper: [continues post-mortem] The left arm, head, shoulders, sternum and portions of the rib cage are intact…
Hooper: [lifts up the severed arm] This is what happens. It indicates the non-frenzied feeding of a large squalus – possibly Longimanus or Isurus glauca. Now… the enormous amount of tissue loss prevents any detailed analysis; however the attacking squalus must be considerably larger than any normal squalus found in these waters. Didn’t you get on a boat and check out these waters?
Hooper: Well, this is not a boat accident! And it wasn’t any propeller; and it wasn’t any coral reef; and it wasn’t Jack the Ripper! It was a shark.
The parents of the children who perished in the Sierre coach crash have now formed a group. Foundation Busramp Sierre are calling for “Independent research into what really happened.”
In related news, Wendy B. Dolin, wife of the deceased, Stewart Dolin, charges that GSK negligently failed to warn her and her husband of what it knew to be a significant risk of suicide associated with Paxil (Seroxat). – The full complaint can be read here.