A CHINESE minibus driver has been arrested on suspicion of dangerous driving after a crash which involved 17 people.

The 41-year-old man from Kensington is being held in police custody while some of the passengers he was driving, thought to be cockle-pickers, are fighting for their lives in hospital.

Two injured Chinese men who were in the minibus yesterday at 5am when it crashed on Balliol Road in Bootle were later released from hospital and last night helped police and immigration officers with their enquiries.

Of the 17 people hurt, three have been discharged from hospital, six have non-life-threatening injuries, with two people - including the driver of the HGV involved, in the major injuries unit.

A further two are at the Royal Liverpool Hospital with serious injuries, one to the head and one to the chest and four are in the critical care unit at University Hospital Aintree.

Of the most seriously injured, two were taken into theatre yesterday morning and two more were due to undergo surgery later yesterday.

University Hospital Aintree accident and emergency consultant Philip Simms said: "I guess that given the extent and number of injuries they were probably not wearing seat belts.

"They were treated for head, chest and abdominal injuries and a mixture of bone fractures."

Fourteen ambulances were called to the scene followed by a team of interpreters who were later drafted in to locate the families of those injured.

Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Lawson said: "There is obviously a big language barrier affecting how we can contact the families of these men.

"Most of them are able to talk and the interpreters will be finding out all their personal details and where they are living.

"We have strong ties with the Chinese community and several officers are in close contact with people from that community who are aiding us greatly."

More than 15 firefighters released nine of the cocklers who were trapped inside the minibus.

Station Officer Matthew Scott, who led the rescue attempt, said: "A number of other people were sitting on the kerb. The majority appeared to be Chinese nationals and there was what appeared to be cockling equipment inside the minibus.

"We were at the scene for around an-hour-and-a-half and used hydraulic cutting equipment to free those who were trapped. In my 12 years as a firefighter I have never seen an accident as severe."

Fishing nets, waders and other cockle-picking equipment was taken away.

Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Lawson said: "We believe these men were going to pick cockles but we cannot confirm their actual destination at this time. A full investigation has been launched."

The white minibus carrying the cockle pickers was wrecked as it demolished a wall in front of a house. The lorry ploughed into the central reservation before coming to a standstill. Earlier this year, 21 Chinese cockle-pickers living in Liverpool died after they were caught in rising tides while working in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire.

A further two are still missing, presumed dead.

Now a Bill is making its way through the House of Commons to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy. The Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill, which would require licensing and registration of such employers, gained an unopposed Lords Third Reading and goes for Royal Assent.

It applies to gangmasters supplying or using workers involved in shellfish gathering and agricultural activities. pANYONE with any information on the crash or the victims should contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.