Plane Carrying 46 Passengers in Venezuela Disappears

A commercial airliner with 46 people aboard disappeared in southwestern Venezuela on Thursday, and authorities said they believed it crashed after residents reported hearing a thunderous crash in the mountains.

Search teams were dispatched to the Venezuelan Andes near the city of Merida, from where the plane departed. The flight was reported missing 30 minutes after takeoff.

Rescue crews were being sent on Friday to the mountainous area of Collado del Condor, at about 13,000 feet, where residents reported by phone "that they heard a great crash," said Noel Marquez, the emergency management director in Merida state.

The plane, owned by Venezuelan airline Santa Barbara, failed to contact control towers in two cities as expected after it took off from Merida en route to Simon Bolivar International Airport near Caracas, said Gen. Antonio Rivero, Venezuela's emergency management director.

Rivero told state television that authorities in the area "have information regarding the possible discovery of the plane" in the mountainous region. But he said officials have no information on what condition the plane could be in.

An air search for the twin-engine plane was temporarily called off at nightfall due to low visibility and fog, Marquez said.

Once the plane took off from Merida, 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.

Relatives and friends of those on board gathered in tears, some of them embracing, at Simon Bolivar International Airport as they awaited word from authorities.

The French-made ATR 42-300 carrying 43 passengers and three crew members took off from Merida's airport at 4:59 p.m. (2129 GMT) and was declared missing 30 minutes later, officials said. The duration of the flight was to have been an hour and 45 minutes.

Marquez said search teams were on their way to the remote mountainous area. "We are going to wait for the teams to reach the area to confirm if the plane is in fact in the zone and in what conditions it was found," he said.

The area where it disappeared is about 400 miles southwest of Caracas.