By Eliana Raszewski and Mark John
France mourned on Tuesday the deaths of three sports stars who were among 10 people killed when two helicopters collided in a remote region of Argentina during the filming of a reality TV show.
Investigators removed the bodies of Olympic swimmer Camille Muffat, yachtswoman Florence Arthaud and boxer Alexis Vastine from the charred wreckage of the two aircraft, but said it was still unclear what caused the accident on Monday afternoon in the rugged western province of La Rioja. There were no survivors.
Amateur footage taken from the ground showed the two helicopters flying in tandem at low altitude when one appears to deviate into the path of the other. Both helicopters then plunge to the ground.
A second video showed dozens of people rushing through the heavy undergrowth toward the helicopters’ burning wreckage. The accident occurred around 5.15 p.m. local time (2015 GMT)
“The sudden death of our fellow French nationals is a cause of immense sadness,” French President Francois Hollande’s office said in a statement.
As part of the show, other contestants were standing blindfolded on the ground a few hundred meters from the helicopters’ flight path, French media reported. They ran to the crash site but could not extinguish the fire, an assistant to the contestants told French broadcaster RFI.
A magistrate judge at the site said all 10 bodies had been retrieved from the helicopters’ mangled ruins and were being taken to a morgue in the provincial capital.
Two pilots and several members of the ALP-TV production company involved in filming the adventure show “Dropped” for private TV station TF1 were among the dead, officials said.
A spokesman for Argentina’s Air Accident Investigation Board said it was too early to determine if human error, mechanical failure or something else was to blame.
France’s BEA investigation office said in a statement on Tuesday it had dispatched two investigators to Argentina to gather evidence on the crash.
“The whole of French sport is in mourning because we have lost three huge champions,” Thierry Braillard, junior minister for sports, town and youth affairs, told RTL radio.
“Florence Arthaud – we all knew her as the ‘Fiancee of the Atlantic’,” he said, referring to a nickname she earned through many daring voyages including a 1990 record for the fastest solitary crossing of that body of water.
TF1 issued a statement expressing solidarity with the victims’ families. French media said filming had been suspended and the crew and other contestants were heading back to France.
“We have no details on the exact circumstances at the moment,” TF1 Chief Executive Nonce Paolini said. “All I can say at the moment is that we are in a state of complete shock.”
“Dropped” involves contestants being left in the wilderness and using their skills to find their way back to civilization.
The collision was the second time in two years that a reality show produced by ALP for TF1 had been hit by tragedy.
In April 2013 the doctor charged with looking after contestants in the long-running “Koh-Lanta” endurance show committed suicide after one of the competitors died following one of the tests, complaining of heart pains.
Arthaud, 57, was one of the first women to carve a place for herself in the top levels of sailing.
She had a brush with death in 2011, when she fell off her boat into the Mediterranean. Rescuers whisked her out after she called her mother by mobile phone.
Muffat, 25, won 400 meters freestyle gold at the 2012 London Olympics. Vastine, 28, won bronze at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
“I am sad for my friends, I’m shaking, I’m horrified, I can’t find the words,” tweeted Sylvain Wiltord, an ex-footballer for English Premier League club Arsenal and a fellow cast member.
Both pilots were military-trained, according to Argentine daily La Nacion.