French Specialists Join Venezuela Crash Probe

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French specialists joined an investigation into the crash of an airliner that killed 160, while Colombia grounded the airline that offered the charter flight to vacationers from the French Caribbean island of Martinique.

The Colombian government said late Wednesday it had halted West Caribbean Airways' (search) operations while its civil air authority reviewed inspections that the small carrier had been required to perform.

The Colombian airline's safety record is being scrutinized after the McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (search) crashed in Venezuela Tuesday while bringing the passengers home to Martinique after a weeklong trip to Panama.

Venezuelan investigators were focusing on the possibility of contaminated fuel or some other fuel problem that led both engines to fail simultaneously, said Nelson Serrano, an emergency official in the western state of Zulia (search).

Investigators took samples from what remained of the engines, but "the near-total destruction of the plane makes this investigation tough," police investigator Hernan Zurita said.

"The one thing that can cause an engine like that to have a problem is fuel contamination," said Paul Czysz (search), emeritus professor of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University in the United States. "It could be water. It could be any number of things."

Panamanian authorities, however, said they found no evidence of tainted fuel and that the plane had plenty of fuel for the trip.

The pilot radioed the nearest airport before the crash, saying both engines had failed. Officials said the plane apparently fell into a steep descent minutes later.

Teams of French experts traveled to Venezuela to aid in the investigation and help identify victims' remains, officials said. Authorities in Martinique also are to appoint two investigative judges to determine if anyone bears legal blame.

French Minister of Overseas Departments Francois Baroin (search) attended the memorial service and later traveled to Venezuela. He said he would visit the crash site Thursday.

"Families have shown admirable strength, courage and dignity," Baroin said before boarding the flight in Martinique.

Experts from France's Accident Investigation Bureau, or BEA, were sent to help with the investigation, as well as six Colombian aviation experts, officials said.

West Caribbean Airways, based in Medellin, Colombia, began service in 1998. Another of its planes crashed in March during takeoff, killing eight and injuring six.

The airline was fined $45,000 in January for more than a dozen violations, including pilots flying too many hours without rest, insufficient crew training and failure to log flight data.

Colombia's civil air authority said the plane that crashed had undergone a full inspection before the flight and nothing indicated mechanical problems. Boeing Co., which merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, said the plane was manufactured in 1986.

Airline officials insisted they do not cut corners when it comes to safety. The airline now has just four planes registered to fly. Two of them are undergoing maintenance.