French sports stars testify in Argentine crash inquiry

French sports stars testify in Argentine crash inquiry

VILLA CASTELLI, ARGENTINA - Four top French athletes testified Thursday in the Argentine inquiry into a helicopter crash that killed 10 people during a reality TV shoot, and will return home Saturday with the show's surviving crew.

France's Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses, Turbomeca, Airbus Helicopter and Argentine Junta Argentina de Accidentes Aereos Civilies investigators examine the wreckage of a helicopter in Villa Castelli, Argentina, March 12, 2015

Olympic champion swimmer Alain Bernard, figure skater Philippe Candeloro, cyclist Jeannie Longo and snowboarder Anne-Flore Marxer recounted the twin helicopter crash to the judge assigned to the case, who is interviewing witnesses at a hotel in Argentina's remote northwest.

There were no survivors in Monday's deadly collision between two helicopters that were filming the reality series "Dropped" in the rugged terrain of La Rioja province.

The crash killed Olympic champion swimmer Camille Muffat, renowned yachtswoman Florence Arthaud and Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine, as well as five French television crew members and two Argentine pilots.

The judge, Daniel Herrera, said he still planned to question about half the two dozen TV crew members holed up at a hotel in the town of Villa Union along with the athletes.

An agent for one of the sports stars said the entire group would then take a Friday night flight to France, arriving in Paris Saturday morning -- a plan confirmed by a source close to the case.

A team of officers from France's gendarmerie police force was meanwhile en route to join their Argentine counterparts to comb through the charred wreckage of the helicopters and work to identify the bodies.

Investigators from France's air accident investigation authority, the BEA, as well as helicopter manufacturer Airbus Helicopters and engine maker Turbomeca, are already working at the scene, where they have begun dismantling the aircraft, looking for clues.

Argentine forensic experts are waiting for their French counterparts to arrive to begin identifying the victims' remains, a local coroner said.

Investigators will have to rely on dental records or DNA tests to identify the badly burned bodies, officials say.

"Dropped," which was to air on French channel TF1 but was immediately canceled after the crash, featured sports stars who were taken blindfolded into rugged environments and given 72 hours to get to a place where they could charge a mobile phone.

Initial investigations indicate the crash was caused by human error, officials say.

- 'Nothing we could do' -

Arthaud, 57, was considered one of the best sailors in the world, conquering what had been a male-dominated sport. Her titles included the 1990 Route du Rhum, the most prestigious transatlantic solo race.

Muffat, 25, won three medals at the 2012 London Olympics, including gold in the 400-meter freestyle. Vastine, 28, won bronze at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

In an interview with AFP, figure skater Candeloro said: "We're left asking ourselves, 'Why them and not us?'"

He also described rushing to the crash site from the spot where he had been waiting his turn to fly to the next shoot.

Amateur video taken from the ground showed the helicopters flying extremely close, their rotors clipping and both aircraft plummeting.

"We rushed to the scene of the accident and when we arrived, the helicopters were in flames. There was nothing we could do," Candeloro said.

"We wanted to help them but we were powerless because of the fire. We didn't have water or a fire extinguisher. It was in the middle of the bush."

The final participant on the show was former international and Arsenal footballer Sylvain Wiltord, who had already returned to France before the crash.

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