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By Enrique Andres Pretel
MERIDA, Venezuela, Feb 22 (Reuters) - All 46 people on board died when a Venezuelan passenger plane slammed into the sheer face of a foggy Andean mountain after veering off course after takeoff, officials said on Friday.
Rescuers rappeled from helicopters to search for remains in the shattered wreckage lodged 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) above sea level on a craggy, rock wall known as “Indian Face.”
The blue-and-white tail of the twin-engine plane rested on the mountainside, which was charred by flames. Pieces of white fuselage and other remains from the crash littered the area, images from a video shot by searchers showed.
Whipped by cross-winds, rescue mountain-climbers struggled to lower themselves down the cliff to reach the plane operated by the small local airline Santa Barbara, civil defense chief Antonio Rivero said.
“This plane was found completely wrecked, smashed against the face of one of the mountains,” Rivero said. “Unfortunately everyone aboard died.”
With few clearings to land choppers, searchers set up camp almost a mile (a kilometre) away and trekked across the rugged terrain to the wreckage. The plane crashed 6 miles (10 km) from the tourist city of Merida after taking off for the capital Caracas on Thursday before dusk in a notoriously difficult region to navigate.
“It makes your heart ache. Venezuela is in mourning,” President Hugo Chavez said in a televised speech.
He pledged a thorough investigation into what caused the crash. The mountainous region is known for their condors and adventure trails.
For years, Venezuelans have debated whether the Merida airport should be shut because it is hemmed in among mountains, although its accident record is not especially noteworthy.
The weather had been good, and the roughly 20-year-old plane had a solid maintenance record and no history of technical problems, authorities said. The pilot was experienced and had specialized training for flying through the Andes.
The pilot made no distress calls before crashing with 43 passengers and a crew of three aboard.
A well-known Venezuelan political analyst, a local mayor and his 11-year-old son and an American woman working at the Venezuelan arm of financial services company Stanford Financial Group were among those killed, authorities said.
Olivia Gil, who was related to a woman on board, fought back tears behind wide sunglasses but kept up hope for a miracle.
“They have given us the news that there’s nothing there, that there are no survivors but now rescuers are going in to look,” she said. “We just don’t know.”
Freddy Belisario, an insurance company worker, considered himself a survivor. He had been scheduled to take the flight but moved up his trip by a few hours “on an impulse.”
“It’s a day when I was not on the list (to die). My time was not due,” he told Reuters, adding he would not be flying for a while because “I don’t want to push my luck.”
Pilots need special training to fly from Merida and aircraft are banned from flying there at night. The plane that crashed on Thursday was the day’s last flight out.
Santa Barbara is a small airline that covers domestic routes and has seven Merida flights a day. The plane was an ATR 42-300, a turboprop built by ATR, a French-Italian joint venture between EADS EAD.PA and Finmeccanica SIFI.MI.
French investigators and an ATR team were going to Venezuela to help in the probe of the crash.
Thursday’s was the second major air accident in Venezuela this year. Last month, 14 people, including eight Italians and one Swiss passenger, died when a plane crashed into the Caribbean close to a group of Venezuelan islands.
Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth, Ana Isabel Martinez and Fabian Cambero in Caracas; Writing by Saul Hudson; Editing by Patricia Zengerle