Venezuelan investigators are picking through the shattered wreckage of a plane that crashed with 160 people on board, trying to determine what caused the engines to fail and sent the jet plunging from the sky in the country’s deadliest air disaster in history.
The pilot radioed authorities saying both engines had failed and requested permission for an emergency landing yesterday shortly before the West Caribbean Airways plane plummeted to the ground, killing all aboard, officials said.
Seats, pillows, and smouldering wreckage were strewn across a pasture dotted with trees among cattle ranches near the border with Colombia. The plane’s tail jutted from the ground.
The crash was the deadliest in Venezuelan history, according to the Aviation Safety Network, a non-profit group that keeps a database of air disasters. It said the death toll surpassed a 1969 crash in Venezuela that killed 155, including 71 victims on the ground.
“I was struck by all of the victims and the massive destruction,” said rescue worker Jose Pena.
Search teams recovered one of the jet’s black boxes, which could give clues to the crash’s cause, said Air Force Maj. Javier Perez, the search and rescue chief. He said the cockpit voice recorder had not been found.
As the plane developed problems hours before dawn yesterday, the Colombian pilot radioed a nearby airport in Maracaibo requesting permission to descend from 33,000 feet to 14,000 feet, said Venezuelan Interior Minister Jesse Chacon.
Investigators believe the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 fell into a steep descent minutes later, plunging about 7,000 feet a minute before slamming into the ground, Chacon said.
Residents reported hearing an explosion when the plane went down east of the Sierra de Perija mountains near Machiques, about 400 miles west of Caracas.
The jet was carrying 152 tourists from Martinique, including a 21-month-old infant, returning home after a week in Panama, officials said. All eight Colombian crew members were killed.
At Martinique’s airport, relatives broke down in sobs as a politician read out victims’ names. In the town of Ducos, where about 30 victims reportedly lived, some 150 distraught friends and relatives gathered outside the town hall.
“I don’t understand. It’s as though the sky fell on my head today,” said Claire Renette, 40, whose sister was among the dead.
Some passengers were descendants of island workers who helped build the Panama Canal a century ago, said Alina Guerrero, a spokeswoman for Panama’s Foreign Ministry. She said the group chartered the flight as part of a program to visit descendants of the Caribbean immigrants who went to Panama to construct the canal.
France’s Minister of Overseas Departments, Francois Baroin, planned to travel to Martinique today to attend a memorial service.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he spoke to French President Jacques Chirac and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to express his condolences.
“We are very saddened by this tragedy,” Chavez said, saying both engines appeared to have simply “turned off”.
The cause of the crash remained unclear. Panama’s civil aviation authority said the plane had enough fuel for the three-hour trip.
Peter Goelz, former managing director of the US National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators would likely look for evidence of fuel contamination.
But Panamanian aviation officials said they found no evidence of contamination in fuel supplied to the plane.
Goelz said he understood both engines also underwent work recently to suppress noise. He said in the past few weeks so-called hush kits, or noise-suppression devices, were supplied to the engines.
West Caribbean Airways has a record of other mechanical problems and financial troubles, but airline officials insisted they did not cut corners on safety.
Martin Gonzalez, spokesman for Colombia’s civil aviation authority, said the airline was previously fined for violations, including pilots and other crew flying too many hours, lack of training and failure to log required flight data.
The plane that crashed passed all safety inspections on Monday night in Colombia before heading to Panama to begin yesterday’s flight, said airline spokesman spokesman John Ospina.
The crash came two days after a Cypriot airliner plunged into the mountains north of Athens, Greece, killing all 121 people aboard. Both jets were flying for new, low-cost regional carriers that are springing up around the world as governments deregulate air travel.
The Colombian airline, based in Medellin, began service in 1998. In March, another West Caribbean plane crashed during take-off from the Caribbean island of Old Providence, killing eight and injuring six.