CARACAS, Wednesday August 17, 2005 | Update
Peasants and residents of the Cachamana sector -epicenter of the plane crash that occurred in northwestern Zulia state early on Tuesday- stated that the Colombian West Caribbean Airways jet with 151 passengers hit the ground in La Cuchara ranch, in the Zulia state municipality of Machiques, near the border with Colombia.
An indescribable noise and a loud explosion followed the crash, which is one of the most dramatic air accidents recorded ever in this area.
Joel González, a rural worker, saw "the plane descending engulfed in flames, and it exploded when it hit the ground... It was around 3:00 a.m., and then the rain started... That is all I could see."
"I was in ranch El Porvenir, located some three kilometers from the crash site, and rushed to tell the foreman what happened," González added.
Another witness, Yeison Henríquez, said the airliner was in fire and turned four times in the air before hitting the ground. "I thought my stove had exploded, but it was the noise the plane was making when falling down. It was a terrible thing. It caught fire on the right side. The impact rocked the whole area. Everybody refused to get to the site."
Local authorities ensured that the Colombian MD82 jet, number HK4374, en route from Panama to Martinique, reported mechanical failures in engines.
Meter Malbergh, director of La Chinita International Airport, in Zulia state, said the airliner pilot contacted the control tower and reported the airplane was flying at 36,000 feet high. He made contacted the control tower again and reported severe mechanical failures. He tried to request permission to land at the airport.
"The control tower told the pilot to resort to the international emergency standards; that nothing else could be done and to stay in contact. After that, communication was lost and the inevitable final came," said Malbergh.
After the impact, bodies and body parts were spread all over a large area. Rescue activities started at 4:00 a.m. amid heavy rains and a cloudy weather that hindered operations.
Firemen, Army and search and rescue officers are recovering the bodies. The remains were bagged and transported by helicopter to several hospitals in Maracaibo, capital of Zulia state. Identification of bodies is taking place at the Universidad del Zulia medical school.
The Venezuelan government regretted the incident. In a press release from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, President Hugo Chávez' administration expressed "deep grief for this dramatic accident" and "sent condolences to the governments of France and Colombia, and the relatives of the 152 French passengers of Martinique and the eight Colombian crew members who died."
Venezuela also offered help in "rescue and repatriation of bodies" and designated technicians and experts to collaborate with the relevant investigations.
Translated by Maryflor Suárez
02:57 PM. HEAVY RAINS. Venezuelan Executive Vice-President Elias Jaua reported that the government is designing plans to support farmers, cattlemen and peasants of the state of Mérida who have been hit by heavy rains that have caused crop losses.