CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) -A Colombian charter jet carrying tourists home from Panama to Martinique crashed in Venezuela on Tuesday after its engines failed, killing all 160 people aboard in one of the country”s worst air disasters.
The West Caribbean airways MD-82 aircraft was en route to the French Caribbean island when it reported engine trouble and diverted toward an airport in Venezuela before crashing in a cattle ranch near the border with Colombia, authorities said.
"Unfortunately, there were no survivors from this accident," Col. Francisco Paz, head of Venezuela”s National Civil Aviation Institute, told local television.
Most of the passengers were local government officials in Martinique who had been on holiday with their families, an official at the Fort-de-France airport in Martinique said. He said the 152 passengers included one baby and four children.
Authorities scouring wreckage-strewn fields pulled out dozens of bodies and found one of the aircraft”s two black box flight data recorders. Data and cockpit voice recorders provide vital details about the aircraft”s last moments.
Venezuelan Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said the aircraft had changed its route to try to land in the western Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, but lost altitude and crashed in the predawn hours in the remote Sierra de Perija region.
"When it was flying over Venezuelan airspace, they had problems with one engine and then with another engine, and at that moment it went down," Chacon said.
French television broadcast images of victims” relatives crying and screaming as an official read out the names of the plane”s passengers at the airport in Martinique.
The Fort-de-France airport official said the plane had been chartered by the Globe Trotters travel agency in Martinique.
"There are children who have lost both their mother and their father," said Andre Charpentier, the mayor of Basse-Pointe, a small community of 4,000 inhabitants in the north of Martinique.
"PRACTICALLY NOTHING LEFT"
Venezuelan rescuers in white surgical masks waded knee-deep in mud and water searching for bodies in fields where the plane went down. The aircraft shattered into small parts after plowing into the ground; its tail was left standing alone, according to a Reuters photographer at the site.
"It”s really terrible, I can”t describe it, there are bodies mutilated, in pieces, there is practically nothing left out there," local mayor Alfonso Marquez told television reporters by telephone.
Farm workers told local television they had seen the aircraft in flames before it hit the ground. As many as 90 bodies had been transported to two morgues in Maracaibo, officials said.
It was the second crash involving a West Caribbean airways plane this year.
In Seattle, Boeing said the company was dispatching a team of air safety investigators to help find the cause of the crash. Boeing took over McDonnell Douglas, maker of the MD-82, in 1997. The U.S. government also offered to assist.
French Transport Minister Dominique Perben said the airplane was inspected recently and no problems were noted.
West Caribbean is based in the Colombian city of Medellin and operates two McDonnell Douglas MD-81s, an MD-82, two Airbus ATR42s and several smaller aircraft.
In March, a West Caribbean Airways Let L-410 aircraft departing from Providencia, Colombia, failed to ascend and hit hills close to the runway. Two crew and six passengers died in that accident.
The MD-82 aircraft, delivered to its first operator in 1986, passed a safety check by Colombian authorities on Monday. But the airline has been penalized before for excessive weight and safety violations, a Colombian aviation official said.
French President Jacques Chirac learned "with very deep emotion" of the air disaster," his office said. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he had spoken to Chirac and to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to express his condolences.
"This is a tragedy…everyone died, both engines just switched off," Chavez said at a public event late Tuesday.
Martinique is an overseas department of France. Chirac”s office said the president had ordered Overseas Territories Minister Francois Baroin to travel to Martinique.