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160 killed in Venezuela plane crash

Engines failed on jet returning tourists to Martinique

MACHIQUES, Venezuela -- A chartered jet filled with tourists returning home to the French Caribbean island of Martinique crashed yesterday in western Venezuela, killing all 160 people on board. The pilot had been attempting an emergency landing after both engines failed, officials said.

Wreckage was strewn across a remote wooded area among cattle ranches near Machiques, 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.

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 Major 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 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 Colonel 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," President Jacques Chirac of France said in a televised statement.

He expressed ''the compassion and solidarity of the entire nation" to victims' families.

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 yesterday'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 yesterday's flight, Ospina said.

Transport Minister Dominique Perben of France 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 US 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. ''One of the first things you always look at is fuel contamination."

Investigators believe the plane fell at a rate of about 7,000 feet a minute after its engines failed, Venezuelan Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said. Most of the wreckage was spread across a strip of land about 110 yards long, said Alfonzo Marquez, mayor of the nearby town of Rosario, suggesting the plane came in at a sharp angle.

The crash was the deadliest in recent years in Venezuela.

The last major civilian crash in the country 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.

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