Argentina investigated Tuesday what caused two helicopters filming a French reality show to collide, crashing in a ball of fire and killing all 10 people on board, including three of France’s best-known athletes.
Under a sweltering late-summer sun, investigators combed through the ashes and mangled wreckage of the five-passenger Eurocopters, looking for any clues on what caused them to smash into each other in the rugged mountains of La Rioja province.
The crash killed champion sailor Florence Arthaud, Olympic champion swimmer Camille Muffat and Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine, as well as five French TV crew members and two Argentine pilots.
Emergency workers removed the victims’ remains from the wreckage near the small northwestern town of Villa Castelli, taking them to the morgue in the provincial capital, about 300 kilometers (200 miles) from the crash site.
The victims’ bodies were burnt beyond recognition, provincial security secretary Luis Cesar Angulo told AFP.
There were no survivors in the crash, which authorities said happened in good weather conditions early Monday evening.
Video taken from the ground showed the two helicopters flying extremely close together, then their rotors clipping and both aircraft plummeting to the ground.
It was the worst accident in the history of reality television.
“The whole of France is in mourning,” said Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
Arthaud, 57, was considered one of the best sailors in the world, a woman who conquered what had been a strictly male-dominated sport. Her titles included the 1990 Route du Rhum, the most prestigious transatlantic solo race.
Muffat, 25, was one of the top swimmers in French history, winning three medals at the London Olympics in 2012, including gold in the 400-meter freestyle.
She shocked the sporting world in June 2014 by announcing her sudden retirement at the age of 24, saying she was exhausted by the long hours of training and wanted to pursue new endeavours.
Vastine, 28, won a bronze medal at the Beijing Games in 2008 in the light welterweight category.
His death came just two months after his sister was killed in a car crash aged 21.
– ‘Feel like vomiting’ –
French President Francois Hollande led the tributes, saying the “brutal death of our compatriots is an immense sadness.”
“They died because, again, they wanted to push the boundaries,” said Hollande.
Muffat’s former trainer 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 “very happy” to participate 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.”
A large poster of a smiling Muffat wearing her three medals was hung outside city hall in Nice, where she lived. A tearful tribute was also held for Vastine in his hometown in Normandie.
And football club Paris Saint-Germain’s players planned to wear black armbands in their Champions League match against Chelsea on Wednesday.
“Dropped,” which originated in Sweden and was to air on French channel TF1, involved eight sports stars being dumped into the wild for a survival contest.
Participants were taken blindfolded into “inhospitable environments” and given 72 hours to get to a place where they could charge a cell phone, said the mayor of Villa Castelli, Andres Navarrete.
The other stars taking part in the show — none of them involved in the accident — were former France and Arsenal football star Sylvain Wiltord, swimmer Alain Bernard, cyclist Jeannie Longo, snowboarder Anne-Flore Marxer and figure skater Philippe Candeloro.
Another top French athlete, Olympic judo champ Teddy Riner, said he had woken up to “tons of messages telling me my buddy (Vastine) was dead.”
“I felt like vomiting, it’s so bad. It’s horrible,” he said.
– Production halted –
Production company Adventure Line Productions (ALP) said it was “shattered” by the tragedy and would immediately stop production and repatriate the teams.
ALP was involved in another French reality TV accident in 2013, when a contestant in survival show “Koh-Lanta” died of a heart attack during filming in Cambodia and a doctor on the program then committed suicide.
French prosecutors opened a manslaughter investigation into the accident in Argentina — standard procedure in France when a national dies abroad.
Two officials from France’s air investigation office were to travel to Argentina to take part in the probe.
Shooting for the series began in late February in Ushuaia, at the southern tip of South America in the glacial terrain of Patagonia.
It then moved to La Rioja, whose scenic mountain landscapes are popular with tourists.