TWO men died in a horrific accident after their car collided with a bus and then burst into flames.
The victims are believed to have died instantly in the head-on crash on the A93 Aberdeen to Banchory road shortly before midnight on Friday.
The two men who died were pals Russell Horne, 21 and Steven Reid, 19. The driver of the car, Michael Mason, 21, was thrown clear of the Vauxhall Vectra, understood to have belonged to another friend.
The burned-out wreck of the Vauxhall Vectra and the damaged bus were at the scene more than 12 hours after the horrific smash that happened at 11.50pm. Accident investigators continued to examine the cause of the tragedy.
The collision between the westbound car and the eastbound single-decker number 201 Stagecoach Bluebird left the femal bus driver and a 16-year-old passenger requring treatment for minor injuries.
Grampian Fire and Rescue Service assistant divisional officer Ally Birkett said the crash was "tragic".
"On arrival the car was well alight and the bus driver was trapped. The car fire was extinguished and the bus driver was released.
"The car driver had been thrown for about 10ft. There was very little we could do for the two in the car. It's a tragic loss. We extend our condolences to the families and friends of the victims who died."
Inspector Ian Kirkwood, of Grampian Police Traffic Department, said: "This was a horrific collision. I would appeal for anyone who witnessed it or saw a dark-coloured Vauxhall Vectra travelling from Aberdeen to Banchory around the time of the collision to contact us.
"Although it is too early to give a cause, investigators are making a detailed examination and the road is expected to be closed for some time."
One eye-witness said: "It was a massive accident. The car was on fire and there was debris all over the road.
Mr Mason was being treated in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, where his condition was described earlier this week as "satisfactory". Police are expected to question him when he is discharge about the events leading up to the fatal head-on collision.
The accident happened just 10 minutes before apprentice greenkeeper Mr Horne was due to turn 22.
Mr Horne died alongside his friend, Mr Reid, who was a slater.
The trio, all from Culter, were travelling west on the A93 Aberdeen-Banchory road, just west of Drumoak, when the vehicle collided with a single-decker bus.
Local minister the Rev John Ferguson said the community had been left "devastated" by the news of the crash.
He said: "People are very shocked by such a tragic loss of life.
"When young people are involved it is always so much worse.
"But I have spoken to each of the families involved and they have been overwhelmed by the support they have received from their relatives, friends and neighbours. It is a very traumatic time for them."
Mr Mason's mum Elaine, 44, said her heart went out to the other families who she has known since the boys' early school days.
"Everybody is devastated that this has happened," she said.
Mr Mason suffered multiple injuries including facial injuries, a collapsed lung, a broken arm and damaged his back.
Mrs Mason said her son had been made aware his friends were dead soon after he was admitted to hospital but he had been heavily sedated and the news had not sunk in exactly what had happened.
The accident site was adorned with tributes to the dead men. Football scarves and other memoriabilia —Russell was an ardent Rangers and Chelsea fan — were laid alongside floral tributes and relatives and friends held vigils at scene.
All three had been friends since they were children. They all went to Culter Primary and Cults Academy.
Russell, who worked at Hazlehead Golf Club, was a former pupil of Cults Academy.
His mother, Susan, also has daughters Sally Wight, 31, Kelly, 29, and son Grant, 26.
Local councillor Pamela MacDonald said the whole of Peterculter had been affected by the tragedy.
"It's just horrifying that something like that could just hit three families.
"Even the boy who didn't die will be in a state for a very long time. It's an awful thing."
Anyone with any information about the collision should contact Grampian Police on 0800 600 5700 or their nearest police station.