MONTEFORTE IRPINO, Italy - Thirty-eight people were killed and 10 injured when a bus plunged off a viaduct in southern Italy in one of the country's worst road accidents.

Initial reports suggested that the coach was traveling at speed and had hit four or five cars before crashing over the roadside barriers on a stretch of road near Monteforte Irpino, east of Naples, on Sunday night.

Many children were among the 50 people on board.

"It was an immense tragedy where we first had to rescue the injured people who were trapped inside the coach and then successively have had to work to pull out the bodies," said Alessio Barbarulo, head of the local fire brigade division that coordinated the rescue effort.

It was the second transport disaster to hit southern Europe in the space of five days. Seventy-nine people were killed when a high-speed train derailed in the Spanish pilgrimage town of Santiago de Compostela on Wednesday.

Crushed wreckage from the coach lay on its side, while bodies covered in white sheets were lined up on the road. It was not clear for the moment whether there was any mechanical damage to the vehicle's brakes or problems with its tyres, or whether there was any fault on the part of the driver, who was killed in the accident.

"You would think that the barriers on the viaducts and bridges should prevent this type of accident but evidently it seems the impact was so strong that even the barrier gave way," Barbarulo said.

Prosecutors have already opened an investigation into the case.

All of the victims appear to have been Italians returning from an excursion to the town of Telese Terme, known for its hot sulphurous springs and a nearby lake popular as a fishing spot. Local media said the stretch of road where the bus crashed had been the scene of repeated accidents.

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