A plane carrying holidaymakers crashed today in western Venezuela after reporting engine problems, killing all 160 people on board, officials said.
Rescue teams pulled dozens of bodies from the wreckage, which officials said was strewn across a forested area among farms near Venezuela’s border with Colombia.
The McDonnell Douglas MD-82 was heading from Panama to the French Caribbean island of Martinique when its pilot requested permission to make an emergency landing just after 8am, saying there was trouble with both engines, said Col. Francisco Paz, president of the National Civil Aviation Institute.
Airport authorities lost radio contact with the West Caribbean Airways plane roughly 10 minutes later in the remote area of Machiques, near the border with Colombia some 400 miles west of Caracas, he said.
“The plane went out of control and crashed,” Paz said. “There are no survivors.”
The French civil aviation authority said all of the passengers were French citizens from Martinique, and confirmed that all died in the crash.
About 150 distraught friends and relatives, many crying, gathered in Martinique outside the city hall of Ducos, a town of 20,000 people where about 30 of the victims reportedly lived.
“The aeroplane should have landed early this morning. I heard on the radio it had crashed,” said Claire Renette, 40, whose sister was among the victims. “I don’t understand. It’s as though the sky fell on my head today.”
Town officials called in doctors and psychologists. Officials in Martinique said the tourists included civil servants and their families who had chartered the flight for a one-week trip to Panama.
“There were couples who went away, and so today there are children who are orphans,” Andre Charpentier, mayor of the Martinique town of Basse-Pointe from which 16 of the victims came, said.
French President Jacques Chirac expressed his “strong emotion” as he learned of the “appalling catastrophe” and offered condolences to families of victims.
He sent France’s minister for overseas territories to Martinique, and opened a crisis centre at the Foreign Ministry to maintain contacts with Venezuelan authorities and victims’ families.
The airline, in a statement from Colombia, said 152 passengers, including an infant, and eight Colombian crew members were on board the MD82, made by McDonnell Douglas. Venezuelan officials confirmed there were 160 aboard, including eight crew members.
The airline said the pilot reported an emergency 20 miles from the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Authorities said the plane requested permission to attempt an emergency landing at the nearby airport in Maracaibo, Venezuela, but never made it.
It went down in a wooded area between two farms in the western state of Zulia, said German Bracho, the state’s director of civil protection.
Residents in the area said they heard an explosion.
Hundreds of rescue workers were searching through the wreckage and had found one of the plane’s black boxes, which could give clues about the crash, said Air Force Maj. Javier Perez, the search and rescue chief. He said the cockpit voice recorder had yet to be found.
French transport minister Dominique Perben said West Caribbean Airways had operated a charter since spring between Panama and the French Caribbean departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
French aviation authorities checked the plane twice since May but found nothing unusual, he said. For this flight, the plane had been chartered by a Martinique travel agency, he said.
Peter Goelz, former managing director of the US National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators would most likely look for evidence of fuel contamination.
“It’s not unusual to lose one engine. It is unusual to lose both,” Mr Goelz said. “One of the first things you always look at is fuel contamination.”
Goelz said he understood that both engines had recently had work done on them to suppress noise. Within the last few weeks, he said, noise suppression devices were supplied to the engines.
The US sent four investigators to Venezuela to help.
West Caribbean Airways, a Colombian airline, began service in 1998. In March, a twin-engine plane it operated crashed during takeoff from the Colombian island of Old Providence, killing eight people and injuring the other six passengers.
On the Colombian island of Old Providence, officials at the island’s small airport announced the suspension today of all West Caribbean flights, without giving a reason.