Investigators worked in freezing temperatures at a charred, high-mountain crash site to recover victims' remains and find clues Saturday in the crash of a plane that slammed into a mountain with 46 people aboard.
Sixteen specialists, including crash investigators and forensic experts, were dropped off by helicopter near the crash site on the steep, foggy slope at an altitude of 4,100 meters (13,500 feet), said General Ramon Vinas, head of the civil aviation authority.
The twin-engine Santa Barbara Airlines plane shattered on impact and burst into flames Thursday, leaving only its tail largely intact and a swath of blackened ground amid scrub brush. Searchers spotted the crash site by helicopter on Friday in the Sierra La Culata National Park.
"We've run into many difficulties due to the steepness of the terrain," Vinas said. High winds forced the helicopter to leave the team two kilometers (more than a mile) from the site, requiring them to hike in thin air and subfreezing temperatures to reach it.
Firefighters carried oxygen canisters to help cope with the high altitude.
Venezuelan officials said the recovery and identification of bodies would be difficult because victims were ripped apart upon impact.
"We're going to recover everything we can," emergency management chief General Antonio Rivero told The Associated Press.
President Hugo Chavez on Friday declared that "Venezuela is in mourning" and called for a full investigation.
The French-made ATR 42-300, bound for Caracas, was carrying 43 passengers and three crew members when it crashed shortly after takeoff from the Andean city of Merida, a tourist destination wedged between soaring mountain peaks.
Officials said the victims, mostly Venezuelans, also included five Colombians and a US citizen, Vivian Guarch, 53, who worked for a Miami branch of Stanford Bank.
"There wasn't even bad weather and they tell me the pilot was among the pilots who know that route the best," Chavez said during a televised speech in Caracas. He said the pilot didn't report any problems to air traffic controllers.
The small airline Santa Barbara said the pilot had been flying for the carrier for eight years.
Aircraft manufacturer ATR, based in Toulouse, France, said specialists from the company and the French Accident Bureau were sent to assist in the investigation. (AP)
All 46 aboard Venezuela plane killed in mountain crash