BARINAS, Venezuela, (Reuters) – A Venezuelan passenger plane slammed into a steep Andean mountainside shortly after takeoff from a nearby tourist city and all 46 people on board were killed, rescue officials said on Friday.
Search teams spotted the wreckage from a helicopter flying over high-altitude mountains. Helicopter pilot Jhonny Paz said the plan was “pulverized” and there were no survivors. “There is minimal chance of any survivors,” said Gerardo Rojas, a regional civil defense chief. “The plane is just too destroyed and it is in such a tough area.”
The twin-engine plane crashed just a few miles (kilometers) from the mountain tourist city of Merida, notoriously difficult for pilots to navigate around, after taking off for the capital Caracas on Thursday evening.
Recovery of the bodies and wreckage would be difficult because there were no obvious areas for aircraft to land nearby in the rugged terrain. “The zone is completely inaccessible,” said Ivan Altuve, a search team coordinator working from the city of Barinas in western Venezuela.
Search teams had trekked overnight through rugged terrain and at daylight on Friday aircraft scoured the Andes. There was no evidence the pilot made distress calls to air traffic controllers before it crashed about 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level, officials said.
Mountain villagers reported hearing a huge noise they thought could be a crash soon after the disappearance of flight 518, local civil defense official Gerardo Rojas said. The passenger list included a well-known Venezuelan political analyst and relatives of a senior government official. There were no immediate reports of foreigners aboard the plane operated by local airline Santa Barbara.
Pilots need special training to fly from Merida’s airport because the city is so tightly hemmed in by mountains that planes must make steep ascents at takeoff.
Visibility at dusk becomes so difficult planes are only allowed to take off during daylight. The plane involved in Thursday’s incident was the day’s last flight out.
Still, weather conditions and visibility were described as optimum at the time of takeoff by one air rescue official.
Family members who had waited for the passengers to arrive in Caracas received help from psychologists to deal with anxiety. They were set to fly on Friday to the area of the crash.
Santa Barbara is a small Venezuelan airline that covers domestic routes and has seven Merida flights a day.
Its president, Jorge Alvarez, said the roughly 20-year-old plane was well-maintained and had no record of technical problems, and that the pilot had worked with the airline for eight years.
The plane was an ATR 42-300, a turboprop aircraft built by French-Italian company ATR.
The ATR 42 series has been involved in at least 17 accidents since first flying in 1984, according to the Aviation Safety Network, a private air safety monitoring agency.
Thursday’s was the second major air accident in Venezuela this year after a plane carrying 14 people, including eight Italians and one Swiss passenger, crashed into the sea close to a group of Venezuelan islands in January.