Plane crash in Venezuela kills 160

Published Aug. 17, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

A chartered jet filled with tourists returning home to the French Caribbean island of Martinique crashed Tuesday in western Venezuela, killing all 160 people on board. The pilot had been attempting an emergency landing after both engines failed, officials said.

Wreckage was strewn across a remote wooded area among cattle ranches near Machiques, 400 miles west of Caracas near the border with Colombia just east of the Sierra de Perija mountain range.

From above, only the tail of the West Caribbean Airways plane could be seen intact, lying amid charred trees.

Rescuers pulled dozens of bodies from the site and recovered one of the plane's black boxes, which could give clues to the cause of the crash, 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 just after 3 a.m., the Colombian pilot radioed to a nearby airport in western Venezuela requesting permission for an emergency landing, saying both engines had failed. But within 10 minutes, the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 fell into a steep descent and broke apart on impact, Venezuelan officials said. Residents reported hearing an explosion.

"The plane went out of control and crashed," said Col. Francisco Paz, president of the National Civil Aviation Institute. "There are no survivors."

The plane was carrying 152 tourists from Martinique, including a 21-month-old child, returning home after a week in Panama, officials said. All eight Colombian crew members also were killed.

At Martinique's airport, relatives sobbed as a lawmaker read the names of the victims. In the nearby town of Ducos, where about 30 of the victims reportedly lived, about 150 distraught friends and relatives gathered outside city hall.

"It's as though the sky fell on my head today," said Claire Renette, 40, whose sister was among the dead.

Officials in Martinique said the vacationers included civil servants and their families who had chartered the flight for a trip to Panama. Town officials called in doctors and psychologists to counsel relatives.

"Martinique is a small place _ 152 people dead, you imagine," said Magalie Grivallier, a spokeswoman for the Martinique government. "It means virtually everybody had a cousin on that plane."

"France is mourning," French President Jacques Chirac said in a televised statement. He expressed "the compassion and solidarity of the entire nation" to victims' families.

The cause of the crash remained unclear. Panama's civil aviation authority said the plane had enough fuel for the three-hour trip.

During a flight in Colombia last month, the jet's tail cone fell off, but it was later repaired, said John Ospina, a spokesman for the airline based in Medellin, Colombia.

Ospina said the plane landed safely on that flight, and the pilots were not aware they had lost the tail cone until after they landed.

He said the tail cone's function is to improve fuel efficiency and aerodynamics and was unrelated to any problems that caused Tuesday's crash.

The plane passed all safety inspections Monday night in Colombia before heading to Panama to begin Tuesday's flight, Ospina said.