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Archive for Saturday, February 23, 2008

All 46 on Venezuela plane killed in mountain crash

February 23, 2008

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— A Venezuelan passenger plane slammed into a steep mountainside in the Andes, killing all 46 people on board, officials said.

The twin-engine plane was shattered to bits upon impact, leaving only its tail largely intact and a swath of charred ground amid scrub brush at an altitude of 13,500 feet.

Search teams reached the remote spot by helicopter and rappelled down with ropes to reach the rugged crash site, Gen. Ramon Vinas, head of the civil aviation authority, said Friday. "By the way it crashed we can determine there are no survivors," he said.

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

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

The victims, mostly Venezuelans, also included three Colombians, identified as Hugo Juan Farfan, Juan Pablo Ruiz and Luis Vargas, and a U.S. citizen, Vivian Guarch, officials said.

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 in an area known as Los Conejos plateau within the Sierra La Culata National Park.

"The impact was direct. The aircraft is practically pulverized," firefighter Sgt. Jhonny Paz told the Venezuelan television channel Globovision.

The plane went down just 6 miles from the Merida airport, en route to Caracas.

"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 in Caracas. "We hope these cases aren't repeated. The causes must be investigated well."

Chavez noted that the pilot didn't report any problems to air traffic controllers before the crash. "He was going on the route, but the governor (of Merida) tells me that apparently he had to make a turn to go toward Los Conejos plateau," Chavez said.

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