Authorities fear that all 153 passengers and eight crew members are dead in one of Venezuela’s worst air tragedies.
Before the aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas MD-82, crashed, Francisco Paz, president of the National Aviation Institute, said the pilot requested permission from air traffic controllers just after 3:07 a.m. to make an emergency landing at a nearby airport because the plane was having trouble with both engines.
“They asked what kind of problems they were having, and the pilots indicated that it was a technical problem in the engines,” Paz told Union Radio in Caracas. “Ten minutes after this communication with the tower, the signal was lost.”
German Bracho, Venezuela’s director of civil protection, said the plane crashed in a wooded area between two farms in the western state of Zulia.
Rescuers are having difficulty reaching the crash site since the plane crashed in a remote area. Venezuelan Interior Minister Jesse Chacon said military helicopters and planes have been dispatched over the area.
“We believe it will be very difficult for there to be any survivors,” Chacon said.
In a statement, French President Jacques Chirac expressed his condolences and had learned “with very deep emotion of the terrible air disaster, which occurred in Venezuela and in which a very great number of victims were French.”
Chirac dispatched Overseas Territories Minister Francois Baroin to open a crisis center in Martinique because the island is an overseas department of France. The United States also sent four investigators to Venezuela to help.
Officials from the Caribbean island said that the passengers were on a one-week vacation to Panama and the group included civil servants and their families.
“There were couples who went away, and so today there are children who are orphans,” Andre Charpentier, mayor of the Martinique town of Basse-Pointe, told France’s I-Tele.
The accident takes place two days after a Helios jet flying from Cyprus to Athens crashed in the mountains killing all 121 people aboard. This is the second West Caribbean plane to crash this year. The first accident occurred back in March when an aircraft departing from Old Providence, Colombia failed to climb and hit hills close to the runway. Six passengers and two crew members died from that incident.
Officials from the Old Providence airport also canceled all West Caribbean flights Tuesday from the small island without giving a reason.
The impact from this latest accident is giving passengers pause.
“I don’t even want to fly on West Caribbean, even if they offer a flight,” Olmo Cardoso, a Colombian-Italian student visiting relatives, told the Associated Press. “Two crashes in such a short period is obviously too much. There’s something wrong.”