THREE French sports stars – Olympic swimmer Camille Muffat, yachtswoman Florence Arthaud and boxer Alexis Vastine – were among 10 people killed when two helicopters collided in Argentina on Monday during the filming of a reality TV show.
Authorities said it was still unclear what caused the accident in the rugged western province of La Rioja near the Andes mountains.
French media citing Argentinian sources said the helicopters were flying through clear skies at an altitude of about 100m when they hit each other at about 8pm.
Amateur footage showed dozens of people rushing through heavy undergrowth toward the burning wreckage.
“The sudden death of our fellow French nationals is a cause of immense sadness,” French President Francois Hollande’s office said.
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.
As part of the show other contestants were standing blindfolded on the ground a few hundred metres from the helicopters’ flight path, French media reported.
They ran to the crash site but could not extinguish the fire, an assistant said.
“French sport is in mourning because we have lost three huge champions,” the junior minister for sports, town and youth affairs, Thierry Braillard, said. “Florence Arthaud we all knew as the ‘Fiancee of the Atlantic’,” he said, referring to a nickname she earned through her many daring voyages, including a 1990 record for the fastest solitary crossing of that body of water.
TF1 expressed solidarity for 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. “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 civilisation.
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 the contestants in the long-running Koh-Lanta endurance show committed suicide after one of the competitors died following one of the tests.
Arthaud, 57, was one of the first women to carve a place 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 cellphone.
Muffat, 25, won 400m freestyle gold at the 2012 London Olympics. Vastine, 28, won bronze at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
“There were no survivors according to the information we have,” La Rioja’s security chief Cesar Angulo said.