Coach driver Maurice Wrightson was driving 51 young people on their way back from the ski resort of Alpe-d’Huez when the brakes of the coach are believed to have failed, causing the vehicle to plough into a cliff and burst into flames.
French transport minister Frederic Cuvilliern has praised Mr Wrightson’s “remarkable courage.”
He said it is believed the 63-year-old tried to slow the bus down by hitting rocks rather than going over the cliff, which is likely to have saved many lives. He said: “The driver’s courage saved many lives. All the testimonies of the people we have met have confirmed this. His attitude and his actions prevented an even worse situation.”
Four of the 51 young passengers on the coach were seriously injured, two of whom are in intensive care including a 19-year-old girl who suffered 80 per cent burns. A further 22 suffered minor injuries.
The brakes of the coach are believed to have failed as Mr Wrightson, of Ashington, Northumberland, approached a final bend on a steep descent from the resort.
Passengers, who were due to return to the UK on Wednesday night, told French Police that Mr Wrightson shouted “There’s a problem with the brakes”, which allowed many to jump clear of the coach through windows before it crashed.
Mr Wrightson worked for Classic Coachlines, based at Annfield Plain in Country Durham, and is believed to have been a coach driver since the 1960s. Tributes have been paid to the driver from fellow bus and coach drivers across the country.
Steve Wardlaw wrote: “Everyone who new Maurice liked him. Everyone who met him had a Maurice story to tell. And every Maurice story left you smiling…RIP a legend to us all….”
A helicopter was scrambled to the scene where firefighters battled to put out the flames, following the accident on Tuesday.
Travel organisation Abta said the passengers were staff on their way home having been working for a Brighton-based ski company.
Heath Williams, managing director of TGM, the coach firm’s parent company, paid tribute to Mr Wrightson, saying he would be “sadly missed”.
He said: “Early indications are that our driver tried to take evasive action and that he alerted passengers. We pay tribute to him for his efforts, and also to our relief driver who helped people to leave the vehicle.”
Survivors of the crash were put up overnight at a hotel in Echirolles, near Grenoble, and gave statements to French police on Wednesday.