Official: Venezuela plane passengers dead - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Official: Venezuela plane passengers dead

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Posted: Tuesday, August 16, 2005 11:27 am | Updated: 9:27 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

CARACAS, Venezuela - A plane carrying vacationers home to the French Caribbean island of Martinique crashed Tuesday in western Venezuela after reporting engine problems, killing all 160 people on board, officials said.

The McDonnell Douglas MD-82 was headed from Panama to Martinique when its pilot requested permission to make an emergency landing just after 3 a.m., saying there was trouble with both engines, said Francisco Paz, president of the National 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," said Col. Francisco Paz, president of the National Civil Aviation Institute. "There are no survivors."

Rescue teams pulled dozens of bodies from the wreckage, which officials said was strewn across a forested area among farms.

The crash came only two days after a Cypriot airliner plunged into the mountains north of Athens, Greece, killing all 121 people aboard.

The French civil aviation authority said all 153 passengers aboard were French citizens from Martinique, and that all died in the crash.

The airline, in a statement from Colombia, said 152 passengers, including an infant, and eight Colombian crew members were on the plane. The discrepancy in the number of passengers could not immediately be resolved.

Officials in Martinique said the vacationers included groups of 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 on France's I-Tele.

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 center at the Foreign Ministry to maintain contacts with Venezuelan authorities and victims' families.

The United States sent four investigators to Venezuela to help.

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," Paz said.

French Transport Minister Dominique Perben said West Caribbean Airways had operated a charter since spring between Panama and the French Caribbean territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe.

French aviation authorities checked the plane twice since May, who found nothing unusual, he said. For this flight, the plane had been chartered by a Martinique travel agency, he said.

Paul Czysz, emeritus professor of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University, said South America's mountainous terrain makes it a challenge for pilots.

"You have to know what you're doing down there," he said. "If you're losing altitude in the wrong place, you're in trouble."

Czysz said all twin engine planes have to be able to fly with one engine. Even if both engines were out on the MD-82, the plane still could have glided another 70 or 80 miles - if mountains weren't in the way.

"The difficulty when you're in a glide is that you're losing altitude every second. If the ground is rising in front of you, your glide range is cut dramatically," Czysz said.

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.

In the Colombian island of Old Providence, officials at the island's small airport announced the suspension Tuesday of all West Caribbean flights, without giving a reason.

Two dozen stranded passengers huddled around a television in Old Providence's palm-studded airport, watching news reports of the crash.

"I don't even want to fly on West Caribbean, even if they offer a flight," said Olmo Cardoso, a Colombian-Italian student visiting relatives on Old Providence. "Two crashes in such a short period is obviously too much. There's something wrong."

Two other airplane crashes in Venezuela in the past year both involved military planes. In December, a military plane crashed in a mountainous area near Caracas, killing all 16 people on board. In August 2004, a military plane crashed into a mountain in central Venezuela, killing 25 people.

Venezuela's last major civilian crash was in 2001, when an airplane from the Venezuelan airline Rutaca crashed in southern Venezuela, killing all 24 people on board and injuring three people on the ground.

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