Much of France is in mourning and looking for answers over the crash of two helicopters in a remote part of Argentina that killed ten people, three of them French sports stars taking part in a reality TV show.
Olympic champion swimmer Camille Muffat, Olympic boxer and bronze medallist Alexis Vastine, and pioneering sailor Florence Arthaud died in the crash, which occurred when the helicopters apparently collided in the air near Villa Castelli, about 730 miles (1,170km) north-west of Buenos Aires.
All 10 people on board – eight French nationals and two Argentine pilots – were killed. The sports stars had been among the contestants in the reality TV show Dropped.
Photographs and mobile phone footage shows the burning wreckage of the helicopters in dry scrub-land of a sparsely populated area along the Andes mountain range that separates Argentina and Chile.
The crash is believed to be one the deadliest incidents yet related to reality TV shows, a sub-genre of which involves taking celebrities and others to far-flung places to face challenges against the natural elements, both physical and mental.
French prime minister Manuel Valls said France’s foreign ministry is in contact with authorities in Argentina to determine what caused the crash. President Francois Hollande expressed “immense sadness” about those who died.
The deaths are likely to place new attention on risks involved with such shows. Two years ago, TF1 – France’s leading private sector network – cancelled the season of the Survivor-like show Koh Lanta after a 25-year-old participant died of a heart attack on the first day of filming in Cambodia.
Show producers Adventure Line Productions was behind both programmes. In a statement, the company said its staff are “devastated” and “share the deep pain of the families and loved ones”.
La Rioja regional secretary of security Cesar Angulo said one of the helicopters belonged to La Rioja province and the other to neighbouring Santiago del Estero province.
“The helicopter from La Rioja was a Eurocopter with a capacity to hold six people. It appears to have brushed against the other helicopter from Santiago del Estero shortly after take-off,” the statement from the provincial government said.
The crew had arrived on Sunday in Villa Castelli, where it had previously filmed a version of Dropped for Switzerland and Denmark, said mayor Andres Navarrete.
The other victims were identified as Laurent Sbasnik, Lucie Mei-Dalby, Volodia Guinard, Brice Guilbert and Edouard Gilles, as well as pilots Juan Carlos Castillo and Roberto Abate.
The production company declined immediate comment about their roles in the show.
French secretary of state for sport Thierry Braillard said on the BFM TV channel that “French sport has lost three stars”.
Vastine, 28, won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and lost in the quarter-finals four years later in London amid a sporting controversy that led him to break down in tears. He had reportedly vowed to win gold at the 2016 games in Rio.
Muffat, 25, won gold in the 400-metre freestyle in London, plus a silver medal in the 200-metre freestyle and a bronze in the 4x200-metre freestyle relay. She had since retired from swimming to focus on her personal life.
Arthaud, 57, was a pioneer in sailing. In 1990, she became the first woman to win the famed Route du Rhum race, a trans-Atlantic single-handed yacht race between Brittany and the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
Other Dropped contestants include former France and Arsenal striker Sylvain Wiltord, ice skating champion Philippe Candeloro, former Olympic swimming champion Alain Bernard and veteran cyclist Jeannie Longo. They were not involved in the accident.
“I am sad for my friends, I’m trembling, I’m horrified, I don’t have words. I can’t say anything,” Wiltord tweeted.
IOC president Thomas Bach said the Olympic world is in mourning.
”We are shocked by this sad news,” he added. ”Our thoughts are with the families and friends of these great athletes who have left us.”
He said ”the world of sport and the Olympic family have lost three of their key members”, who ”were all not only champions in their sport but also contributed greatly as role models”.
The Olympic flag will be flown at half-mast for three days at the International Olympic Committee’s headquarters in Switzerland, he added.