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Chilean helicopter crash kills 13

  • Story Highlights
  • 12 firefighters were being transferred between blazes in central Chile
  • Pilot also died; he flew last mission as presidential pilot in December
  • Craft crashed into mountain and caught fire; all aboard died instantly
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SANTIAGO, Chile (CNN) -- Authorities recovered the bodies Monday of a former Chilean presidential pilot and 12 firefighters whose helicopter crashed into a fog-shrouded mountain Sunday afternoon.

The pilot, identified as Eduardo Canala Pecchenino, was a Chilean air force commander who flew his last mission as a presidential pilot in December, El Mercurio newspaper said.

The other 12 on board -- all of them younger than 30 -- were members of crews fighting forest fires in central Chile, officials said.

No cause for the crash had been given. Federal aviation investigator Sergio Sepulveda said the investigation will take at least 30 days.

The helicopter belonging to a company called Flight Service was transferring the firefighters between blazes when it crashed near Chanco, close to the Pacific Ocean, officials said. The aircraft caught on fire on impact, and all on board died instantly.

Nearby firefighters were first to arrive on the scene and found bodies and helicopter wreckage strewn over an area more than 120 meters (about 400 feet) wide, department commander Carlos Penailillo told CNN affiliate TVN. By the time rescuers arrived, there was no way to help the victims, he said.

"The helicopter was totally disintegrated and scattered and the engine was on fire," Penailillo was quoted as saying in El Mercurio. "Everyone was dead. There were three bodies still inside the cabin, and the rest were spread in the surrounding area, including over some thickets."

The aircraft crashed in a remote rugged area reachable only by four-wheel-drive and other special vehicles, La Nacion newspaper said.

The pilot, Canala, had been granted permission to work on the firefighting detail before he went to his next assignment at the Chilean air force war college, El Mercurio said.

Previously, he served as pilot for Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, flying his last mission for her to Brazil and back in December. Before that, Canala was the co-pilot for President Ricardo Lagos, who served from 2000 to 2006.

"He was a man with much experience, with more than 20 years in the air force and whom I knew personally," Sepulveda, the aviation official, told La Nacion.

Flight Service general manager Carlos Ahrens said the company bought the helicopter four years ago and it was in good working order, El Mercurio said.

Some victims' relatives said the young firefighters sometimes were not comfortable flying.

Rosa Moya, an aunt to one of the victims, said that "once in a while they said that they were afraid to fly, but they never thought there would be an accident," El Mercurio reported.

Gilberto Villegas, uncle to another victim, told the newspaper that the young men were working as firefighters by necessity.

"They liked this work, and there are no other opportunities in the area due to their lack of studies. Their parents are destroyed," he said. "The business should answer as to what happened. In addition, the helicopter needed repairs almost every day and the firefighters were afraid to fly in it, but they had to comply with their obligations."

All About ChileMichelle Bachelet

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