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France mourns deaths of Olympians in crash

Two copters collided in Argentina during the making of a TV reality show.

Alexis Vastine , an Olympic bronze-medalist boxer, was among the contestants in the reality TV show "Dropped," which was being filmed in the isolated region. Zuma Press
Alexis Vastine , an Olympic bronze-medalist boxer, was among the contestants in the reality TV show "Dropped," which was being filmed in the isolated region. Zuma PressRead more

VILLA CASTELLI, Argentina - Investigators plucked cellphones, bits of paper, and other mostly charred and unrecognizable items on Tuesday from the ruins of two helicopters that collided while carrying prominent French athletes, an accident that left the European nation in mourning and had Argentine experts struggling to understand how two experienced pilots lost control.

The helicopters crashed and burst into flame shortly after taking off Monday afternoon near the remote settlement of Villa Castelli in the Andean foothills in northwest Argentina.

Officials said all aboard - eight French nationals and two Argentine pilots - were killed.

Among them were Olympic champion swimmer Camille Muffat, Olympic bronze-medalist boxer Alexis Vastine, and pioneering sailor Florence Arthaud. They had been among the contestants in the reality TV show Dropped, which was being shot in the sparsely populated region.

Expressions of grief poured in from French athletes and officials, including President Francois Hollande, who said he felt "immense sadness." The International Olympic Committee announced it would fly its flag at half-staff for three days.

The bodies were being transported to the regional capital of La Rioja province, where autopsies would be conducted, said Judge Virginia Illanes Bordon.

La Rioja Aviation Director Daniel Gorkich said that both pilots were highly trained and speculated that afternoon sun and strong winds might have been a factor in the crash.

At the moment of impact "the sun was setting on the Andes mountain range directly in front of them," said Gorkich. "Also this is an area with wind gusts." He said that what happened was "incomprehensible."

The two Eurocopters came down about 50 feet apart and were completely destroyed. One of the aircraft was so charred that only the blades were recognizable.

French officials said they would work with Argentine investigators to determine the cause of the accident, and the Paris prosecutor's office opened an investigation into possible involuntary manslaughter.

The other victims were identified as Laurent Sbasnik, Lucie Mei-Dalby, Volodia Guinard, Brice Guilbert and Edouard Gilles, as well as pilots Juan Carlos Castillo and Roberto Abate.

The wife of Castillo, Cristina Alvarez, told television station Todo Noticias that her husband was a veteran of the Falklands War and had vast experience flying helicopters, including in places like Antarctica.

Her voice cracking, she said her husband was "extremely happy" because he had recently found out he was going to be a grandfather.

La Rioja's regional secretary of security, Cesar Angulo, said one of the helicopters belonged to the government of La Rioja province and the other to neighboring Santiago del Estero province.

A widely circulated video purportedly shot at the scene shows the blades of one helicopter hitting the rails of the second, causing both aircraft to lose control and crash.