MARACAIBO, Venezuela (AP) – Scores of grieving relatives arrived in Venezuela from the French Caribbean island of Martinique on Friday, while experts used DNA samples and dental records to try to identify the remains of the 160 people killed in a plane crash earlier this week.

Nearly 100 relatives and politicians from Martinique stepped off a Boeing 737 before dawn in an empty airport in the western city of Maracaibo.

Some wept, while others, numb with shock, awaited answers about how the West Caribbean Airways McDonnell Douglas MD-82 crashed into a field Tuesday, killing all 152 passengers – including a 21-month-old toddler – and the eight Colombian crew members.

Rose-Marie Pelican, 51, whose sister and niece perished in the crash, demanded somebody be held accountable.

“I still don’t manage to understand she will never call again,” said Pelican, adding that her sister Marie-Annick Taupin had survived cancer and now “someone else stole back her life.”

Taupin, who was traveling with her 18-year-old daughter Elodie Maquiaba, had called Pelican before the flight to say when she was taking off.

“When you travel, you put your life in other people’s hands, and you know nothing of these people,” Pelican said.

West Caribbean’s safety record is under scrutiny by Colombian civil aviation authorities and its flights have been grounded while officials review inspections that the carrier had been required to perform.

The airline has said that it did not cut corners on safety and that the plane passed a safety inspection in Colombia the day before it crashed.

The relatives were taken to a nearby hotel after their arrival, escorted by a dozen Venezuelan police cars.

Most were later taken by bus to the medical school where victims’ remains were being kept in a morgue. The relatives sat and prayed in a nearby courtyard, and authorities were there to answer questions.

Officials said identifying victims would take time, and it could be up to three weeks until all remains could be returned home.

Nine visiting relatives flew over the crash site in a small plane, peering down on the pasture where the plane’s tail still jutted from the ground.

“Now at least the idea that all is finished is sinking in,” said Hilire Mainge, 53, who lost two brothers, their wives, and a 7-year-old niece.

“The violence of the crash must have been incredible. Now I feel relieved,” Mainge said after returning from the fly-over. “Now I know that my family did not suffer… I’m sure they died on the spot.”

The plane was en route to Martinique from Panama, where the passengers had spent the past week on vacation. Many were civil servants, and the group included descendants of islanders who helped build the Panama Canal.

The pilot had radioed authorities shortly before the crash, requesting an emergency landing and saying both engines had failed.

Investigators planned to remove the battered engines to study them and “find out if there really was a failure of both engines,” said Lt. Col. Lorllys Ramos Acevedo, director of Venezuela’s crash investigation board.

Investigators were focusing on the possibility of contaminated fuel or some other related problem, said Nelson Serrano, a regional emergency officials.

Panamanian authorities said they found no evidence of tainted fuel in the source used by the plane.

Twelve French investigators were in Maracaibo, including police and coroners, France’s Interior Ministry said.

The crash was the deadliest in Venezuela’s history, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

Officials said they had removed virtually all the remains from the site and had ended their search.

French Minister of Overseas Departments Francois Baroin said the families want to know “the truth of the matter,” and that the small Colombian airline could face accusations in civil or criminal court.

Natalie Cretinoir, 36, said she came to Venezuela to confirm that her mother, Arsene Kimper, was dead.

“I was hoping to see her body, or even a piece of her body, or even just some of her personal belongings,” Cretinoir said, in tears. “They told me I would see nothing.”

Search teams had recovered the jet’s flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, which were to be analyzed with the help of French investigators.

AP-ES-08-19-05 2045EDT


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