Clues sought in Venezuela plane crash that killed 46

Sunday, February 24, 2008

MERIDA, Venezuela -- Investigators searched through the wreckage of a plane that slammed into an Andean mountainside with 46 aboard, working in freezing temperatures Saturday to find clues and recover victims' remains.

Sixteen specialists, including crash investigators and forensic experts, were dropped off by helicopter near the crash site on the steep, foggy slope at an altitude of 13,500 feet, said Gen. Ramon Vinas, head of the civil aviation authority.

Amid the wreckage, searchers recovered the plane's two "black boxes" -- cockpit voice and data recorders that could indicate what went wrong. Investigators say the pilot made no distress call before the crash.

Officials said the victims, mostly Venezuelans, also included five Colombians and a U.S. citizen, Vivian Guarch, 53, who worked for a Miami branch of Stanford Bank.

Weeping relatives of the victims prayed in a Mass in nearby Merida, arranging white roses in the shape of a heart on the floor of the church.

The twin-engine plane shattered on impact and burst into flames Thursday, leaving only its tail largely intact and a swath of blackened ground amid scrub brush. Searchers spotted the crash site by helicopter Friday in the Sierra La Culata National Park.

"We've run into many difficulties due to the steepness of the terrain," Vinas said. High winds forced the helicopter to leave the team more than a mile from the site, requiring them to hike in thin air and subfreezing temperatures to reach it.

Firefighters carried oxygen canisters to help cope with the high altitude.

Venezuelan officials said the recovery and identification of bodies would be difficult because victims were ripped apart upon impact.

"We're going to recover everything we can," emergency management chief Gen. Antonio Rivero told The Associated Press.

The French-made ATR 42-300, bound for Caracas, was carrying 43 passengers and three crew members when it crashed shortly after takeoff from the Andean city of Merida, a tourist destination wedged between soaring mountain peaks.

The cockpit voice and data recorder from the Santa Barbara Airlines flight would be turned over the plane's manufacturer for analysis, Vinas said.

Aircraft manufacturer ATR, based in Toulouse, France, said specialists from the company and the French Accident Bureau were sent to assist in the investigation.

President Hugo Chavez on Friday declared that "Venezuela is in mourning" and called for a full investigation.

"There wasn't even bad weather and they tell me the pilot was among the pilots who know that route the best," Chavez said during a televised speech.

The small airline Santa Barbara said the pilot had been flying for the carrier for eight years. The flight crashed just 6 miles from the Merida airport.

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