French investigators launch probe of Argentine crash

Villa Castelli (Argentina) (AFP) - French experts on Wednesday began investigating a helicopter crash that killed 10 people during a reality TV shoot in Argentina, including three of France's best-known sports stars.

Officials from France's BEA air accident investigation authority held meetings at the French embassy in Buenos Aires, then traveled to the crash site in the northwestern province of La Rioja, where Argentine investigators were combing through charred wreckage.

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

Initial investigations indicate the crash was caused by "human error," said Roberto Ludenas, spokesman for the provincial government.

"The helicopters were in excellent condition," he told AFP.

The two BEA investigators were accompanied by a representative of Airbus Helicopters, the company that made the two Eurocopters involved in the crash, and another from engine manufacturer Turbomeca.

The French consul in Argentina, Raphael Trannoy, was also in La Rioja to meet with judicial officials leading the investigation and visit the morgue and hospitals where the victims' badly burnt remains are to be identified.

The victims were contestants in the reality TV series "Dropped," in which sports stars were taken blindfolded into rugged environments and given 72 hours to get to a place where they could charge a cellphone.

It was the bloodiest accident in reality TV history.

There were no survivors in the crash, which happened in good weather.

- 'Bad dream' -

The remaining five participants in the show, who were not involved in the crash, have been taken to a hotel in the small town of Villa Union.

The French consul said they would be "at the disposal of the Argentine justice system for any requests to testify."

One of them, Olympic champion swimmer Alain Bernard, told AFP he felt like he was living "a bad dream."

"You hear the helicopter flying away and then suddenly you hear a loud noise and then you don't hear the helicopter anymore. All that's burned into your mind, and it will be for life," he said.

"I just want to testify in the inquiry and go home. And go visit Camille's parents."

Another participant, figure skater Philippe Candeloro, said the accident "happened so fast," adding he was grateful that his "friends, especially the ones who were blindfolded... didn't suffer."

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

In Paris, several hundred people from the French sporting world paid an emotional tribute to the three late stars.

Pictures of the trio, covered with flowers, were laid out at the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education (INSEP), France's leading sports institute, whose head said it was like a "death in the family."

The national football and basketball federations announced a minute's silence ahead of all matches in France this weekend, while the rugby federation planned a round of applause before matches.

Officials in Nice, Muffat's hometown, said the Olympic pool where she trained would be renamed in her honor.

- Posthumous book excerpt -

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.

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.

Newspaper 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.

The other participants on the show were former France and Arsenal footballer Sylvain Wiltord, cyclist Jeannie Longo and snowboarder Anne-Flore Marxer.