Airline faces scrutiny after Venezuela crash

Investigators converged on Wednesday on the remote Venezuelan hillside where a Colombian jetliner crashed on Tuesday, killing all 152 French tourists and eight Colombian crew on board and leaving wreckage strewn over a wide area.

Experts from all three countries are taking part in the investigation, with much attention now being focused on West Caribbean Airways, the Colombian airline that chartered the plane used to take the tourists from a holiday in Panama back to the French Caribbean island of Martinique.

One dozen forensic experts worked through the night taking fingerprints from badly charred bodies at a morgue set up in the university in the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, in a bid to identify the victims.

More than 90% of the bodies of the victims have been recovered, Antonio Rivero, the head of Venezuela’s civil protection department, said on Wednesday. But officials said the bad state of the bodies will delay the formal identification process.

The plane crashed in the Sierra de Perija mountains after the pilot reported problems with both engines on the McDonnell-Douglas MD-82 jet.

Venezuelan Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said the pilot had requested permission to make an emergency landing in Venezuela. He said the plane “started to fall at a speed of 7 000 feet [2 100m] a minute.”

The island of Martinique was devastated by the crash, which left the highest French toll to date in an aviation disaster.

The 152 passengers on the plane were a mixture of government employees, pensioners and workers from private companies who had booked for a week-long holiday in Panama organised by the Globe Trotter travel agency.

Many people from Martinique helped build the Panama Canal in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and some stayed in the country.

Dozens of relatives flocked to Lamentin airport near Martinique’s capital, Fort-de-France after news of the crash was given.
The names of the dead were put on lists displayed at the airport.

The crash killed whole families, according to French officials who were organising flights to get relatives to Maracaibo.

There was to have been 153 passengers on the ill-fated flight, but Gertrude Romain, a retired teacher, said she missed the flight to look after her son who had fallen ill.

“This morning my husband was saying that our friends would be able to give us their impressions of the trip. Then we heard the news,” said Romain, who regularly goes on holiday with a group of former schoolmates.

“I’m devastated,” she added.

Second accident

It was the second accident in five months involving the financially troubled Colombia’s West Caribbean Airways, a low-cost carrier launched in 1998.

In March, another of its planes, a Let-410, crashed minutes after take-off from the Colombian island of Providencia, killing two crew members and six of its 12 passengers. That crash is still under investigation.

In July, West Caribbean suspended flights for a week after United States aircraft maker Boeing, which took over McDonnell-Douglas in 1997, asked the airline to conduct maintenance work on its fleet, a Colombian civil aviation official said.

Reports filed in Bogota last month show that the carrier, which has a subsidiary in Costa Rica, had accumulated a debt of $6-million.

French Transport Minister Dominique Perben said the plane had been checked twice this year by authorities in Martinique who did not detect any problems.

West Caribbean Airways began as a charter airline but was bought by a group of Colombian businessmen in 2001 and relaunched as a low-cost carrier based in Medellin.

The airline has three jets, including the McDonnell-Douglas MD-82 that crashed, and two MD-81s. It also has several Czech Let-410 and Franco-Italian ATR-42 turboprops.

French President Jacques Chirac called the accident a “shocking catastrophe”. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Panamanian President Martin Torrijos and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also sent condolences to the families.—Sapa-AFP

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