MACHIQUES, Venezuela – A chartered jet filled with tourists returning home to the French Caribbean island of Martinique crashed Tuesday in western Venezuela (search), killing all 160 people on board. The plane plunged to the ground after the pilot reported both engines had failed, officials said.
Wreckage was strewn across a remote pasture near Machiques (search), 400 miles west of Caracas near the border with Colombia just east of the Sierra de Perija mountain range. From above, only the tail of the West Caribbean Airways plane could be seen intact, lying amid charred trees.
The tail of the West Caribbean Airways (search) plane jutted from the ground, the only part of the jet that appeared intact.
Rescuers pulled dozens of bodies from the site and recovered one of the plane's black boxes, which could give clues to the cause of the crash, said Air Force Maj. Javier Perez, the search and rescue chief. He said the cockpit voice recorder had not been found.
As the plane developed problems just after 3 a.m., the Colombian pilot radioed to a nearby airport in western Venezuela requesting permission for an emergency landing, saying both engines had failed. But within 10 minutes, the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (search) fell into a steep descent and broke apart on impact, Venezuelan officials said. Residents reported hearing an explosion.
"The plane went out of control and crashed," said Col. Francisco Paz, president of the National Civil Aviation Institute. "There are no survivors."
The plane was carrying 152 tourists from Martinique, including a 21-month-old child, returning home after a week in Panama, officials said. All eight Colombian crew members also were killed.
At Martinique's airport, relatives sobbed as a lawmaker read out the names of the victims. In the nearby town of Ducos, where about 30 of the victims reportedly lived, about 150 distraught friends and relatives gathered outside city hall.
"It's as though the sky fell on my head today," said Claire Renette, 40, whose sister was among the dead.
Officials in Martinique said the vacationers included civil servants and their families who had chartered the flight for a trip to Panama. Town officials called in doctors and psychologists to counsel relatives.
"Martinique is a small place — 152 people dead, you imagine," said Magalie Grivallier, a spokeswoman for the Martinique government. "It means virtually everybody had a cousin on that plane."
"France is mourning," French President Jacques Chirac said in a televised statement. He expressed "the compassion and solidarity of the entire nation" to victims' families.
Venezuela's government issued a statement lamenting the disaster and pledging to put "all resources" into the investigation.
The cause of the crash remained unclear. Panama's civil aviation authority said the plane had enough fuel for the three-hour trip.
During a flight in Colombia last month, the jet's tail cone fell off, but it was later repaired, said John Ospina, a spokesman for the airline based in Medellin, Colombia.
Ospina said the plane landed safely on that flight, and the pilots were not even aware they had lost the tail cone until after they landed.
He said the tail cone's function is to improve fuel efficiency and aerodynamics and was unrelated to any problems that caused Tuesday's crash.
Ospina also said the plane underwent several hours of repairs two weeks ago while passengers waited to board a domestic flight. He said he did not know the nature of that problem.
The plane passed all safety inspections Monday night in Colombia before heading to Panama to begin Tuesday's flight, Ospina said.
French Transport Minister Dominique Perben said French aviation authorities had checked the plane twice since May but found nothing unusual. West Caribbean Airways had operated a charter since spring between Panama and the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
The United States offered to send investigators to Venezuela to help.
Peter Goelz, former managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators would most likely look for evidence of fuel contamination.
"It's not unusual to lose one engine. It is unusual to lose both," Goelz said.
But Panamanian aviation officials said they found no evidence of contamination in the fuel supplied to the plane. A plane from the DHL courier company successfully made a flight to Miami using the same fuel, said Tomas Paredes, Panama's civil aviation director.
Goelz said he understood both engines recently had work done on them to suppress noise. Within the last few weeks, he said, hush kits — noise-suppression devices — were supplied to the engines.
When the pilot reported engine trouble, he asked permission from the nearest airport to descend from 33,000 feet to 14,000 feet, Venezuelan Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said. Investigators believed the plane later fell at a rate of about 7,000 feet a minute, Chacon said.
The crash came only two days after a Cypriot airliner plunged into the mountains north of Athens, Greece, killing all 121 people aboard.
The last major civilian crash in Venezuela was in 2001, when an airplane from the Venezuelan airline Rutaca crashed in southern Venezuela, killing all 24 people on board and injuring three others on the ground.
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.
Relatives of some Colombian victims gathered on Tuesday at the airline's office at the Bogota airport. Among them was Erika Beltran, whose husband Giovani Fallaci was among the flight attendants.
"His passion was to fly," Beltran said, weeping. "He will always be with me."