French experts go to Argentina to probe reality TV tragedy
PARIS - Agence France-Presse
Investigators work next to the charred wreckage of the two helicopters which collided in the region of Villa Castelli, in the Argentine province of La Rioja, March 10, 2015. REUTERS Photo.French air investigators headed to Argentina on March 11 to probe a helicopter crash that killed 10, including three of France's best-known sports personalities, as the country's top sports institute prepared a ceremony in their honour.
Two French officials will join Argentine investigators who are already combing through the wreckage, looking for clues as to why the helicopters smashed into each other shortly after take-off in the rugged mountains of La Rioja province.
Monday's crash killed Olympic champion swimmer Camille Muffat, yachtswoman Florence Arthaud and Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine, as well as five French TV crew members and two Argentine pilots.
The victims -- and five other sports stars including former France and Arsenal footballer Sylvain Wiltord -- were contestants in the reality TV series "Dropped" which involves placing sports personalities in inhospitable conditions.
It was the bloodiest accident in reality TV history.
Emergency workers removed the victims' remains from the wreckage near the small northwestern town of Villa Castelli on Tuesday and took them to the morgue in the provincial capital, about 300 kilometers (200 miles) from the crash site.
The bodies were burned beyond recognition, provincial security secretary Luis Cesar Angulo told AFP.
There were no survivors in the crash, which authorities said happened in good weather.
Video taken from the ground showed the two helicopters flying extremely close, their rotors clipping and both aircraft plummeting to earth.
Franck Firmin-Guion, head of Adventure Line Productions (ALP) that was making the show, said: "Suddenly, (one of the helicopters) swerved off course and hit the other one."
Prosecutors have opened a manslaughter investigation -- standard procedure when a French citizen dies abroad.
French media provided blanket coverage of the accident, with Le Parisien daily using the headline "Goodbye, champions".
Some papers pointed the finger at the concept of reality TV, with the Sud Ouest regional daily asking: "Is even the best programme... worth the sacrifice of 10 people and the death of three magnificent athletes?"
French President Francois Hollande led the tributes, expressing his "immense sadness."
The French national institution of sport (INSEP) prepared a ceremony in their honour, while athletes and administrators mourned "a death in the family."
Muffat, 25, won three medals at the 2012 London Olympics, including gold in the 400-meter freestyle, sealing her status as one of the best swimmers in French history.
She shocked the sporting world in June last year by announcing her retirement at the age of 24, saying she was exhausted by the long hours of training and wanted to pursue new challenges.
Arthaud, 57, was considered one of the best sailors in the world, conquering what had then been a male-dominated sport. Her titles included the 1990 Route du Rhum, the most prestigious transatlantic solo race.
Le Parisien published poignant excerpts from a forthcoming book, in which she wrote: "The fear of dying is for me the only real terror... life is a gift. You have to live it to the full and always believe fully in one's destiny."
Vastine, 28, won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 in the light welterweight category. His death came just two months after his 21-year-old sister was killed in a car crash.
Muffat's former coach Fabrice Pellerin told French radio station RTL: "What's hard is to reconcile the image I have of Camille -- who was unsinkable -- with what happened."
The swimmer's partner, William Forgues, said she had been excited about appearing in the show.
"She was loving it," he told AFP. "She was hoping not to go out first, to be able to continue, to go on to another magical destination."
In the southern French city of Nice, where Muffat lived, mourners lit candles beneath a large poster of the smiling swimmer wearing her three medals.
A tearful tribute was also held for Vastine in his hometown in Normandy.
Paris Saint-Germain players plan to wear black armbands in their Champions League match against Chelsea on Wednesday.
Participants in "Dropped" were taken blindfolded into "inhospitable environments" and given 72 hours to get to a place where they could charge a cellphone, said the mayor of Villa Castelli, Andres Navarrete.
Other sports stars taking part -- none of them involved in the accident -- were Wiltord, Olympic champion swimmer Alain Bernard, cyclist Jeannie Longo, snowboarder Anne-Flore Marxer and figure skater Philippe Candeloro.
ALP said it would immediately halt filming and repatriate the teams.
The firm was involved in another French reality TV accident in 2013, when a contestant in the survival show "Koh-Lanta" died of a heart attack in Cambodia and a doctor on the crew then committed suicide.