|Relatives grieved yesterday as they waited for news at the desk of Venezuela's Santa Barbara Airlines at the airport in Merida. (Leo Leon/Associated Press)|
MERIDA, Venezuela - Search teams combing the wreckage of a Venezuelan passenger plane that slammed into a steep mountainside in the Andes found no survivors, officials said yesterday.
Most of the plane was pulverized in the Thursday crash, apparently killing all 46 people on board. "By the way it crashed we can determine there are no survivors," said General Ramon Vinas, head of the civil aviation authority.
Searchers reached the remote site by helicopter and had to rappel down with ropes to reach the rugged crash site, Vinas said.
The French-made ATR 42-300 carrying 43 passengers and three crew members crashed in foggy weather shortly after takeoff from the Andean city of Merida, a popular tourist destination wedged between soaring mountain peaks.
The victims were mostly Venezuelans, officials said. Also killed were a US citizen, Vivian Guarch, and three Colombians, identified as Hugo Juan Farfan, Juan Pablo Ruiz, and Luis Vargas.
Guarch, 53, was an employee of a Miami branch of Stanford Bank who was on a business trip to Merida, the company said.
The Santa Barbara Airlines flight crashed at an altitude of 13,500 feet in an area known as Los Conejos plateau within Sierra La Culata National Park. It was just 6 miles from the Merida airport, en route to Caracas, Vinas said.
President Hugo Chávez 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," he said.
Once the twin-engine plane took off, the control tower received no further communication from the pilot, said Jorge Alvarez, president of Santa Barbara, a small airline that covers domestic routes in Venezuela.
The weather was sunny in Merida on Thursday, but fog is common in the mountainous area.
Three helicopters were sent to the crash site, where winds and cloudy skies made dropping off emergency workers difficult. Removing human remains and wreckage will be very difficult as well, officials said.
The airline said it would cooperate fully with investigators. Aircraft manufacturer ATR, based in Toulouse, France, said specialists from the company and the French Accident Bureau would assist in an inquiry.