Painful wait for French stars, crew stranded in Argentina after fatal helicopter crash

VILLA UNION, Argentina (AFP) - The surviving cast and crew of the ill-fated reality show Dropped wander aimlessly around their hotel, waiting to testify on the accident that killed their friends and colleagues, then return home to France.

The hotel, the Picas Negras, is a star attraction in Villa Union, a small town at the edge of Route 76 in Argentina's remote, mountainous north-west.

Its restaurant, currently closed to the public, is considered one of the best in the region.

That is where Olympic champion swimmer Alain Bernard, figure skater Philippe Candeloro, cyclist Jeannie Longo and snowboarder Anne-Flore Marxer, as well as two dozen production crew members, cross paths at mealtimes.

They kill time as best they can the rest of the day, glued to their phones - their only contact with their distraught families - and giving the occasional interview to journalists at the back of the hotel.

None are very keen to talk about the twin helicopter crash that killed Olympic champion swimmer Camille Muffat, renowned sailor Florence Arthaud and Olympic boxer Alexis Vastine, as well as five French TV crew members and two Argentine pilots.

Or about the helpless feeling of watching the two helicopters burn on the stark scrubland outside the nearby town of Villa Castelli after colliding in mid-air.

The judge assigned to the case, Daniel Herrera, began questioning the French nationals Thursday and said they could return home in the next 48 hours.

Bernard told AFP he felt like he was living "a bad dream".

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

Figure skater Philippe Candeloro said: "We're left asking ourselves, 'Why them and not us?'"

GRIEVE AND WAIT

Julien Magne, programme director at Adventure Line Productions, said the cast and crew were "at the disposal of the (Argentine) justice system" for the inquiry.

Until then, they grieve and wait.

"We're in mourning. We lost friends who we'd worked with for 15 years in some cases," Magne said.

His voice breaks as he remembers Lucie Mei-Dalby, a journalist and mother of two killed in the crash.

Outside, police guard the hotel and TV trucks stand by. The French consul and Judge Herrera come and go.

Inside, three French psychologists who flew in Wednesday night are available for counselling.

Nestled between the Famatina mountains and the foothills of the Andes, the two-storey hotel melts into the surrounding landscape, its ochre walls matching the colour of the earth in this far-flung region of La Rioja province.

Villa Union is a base camp for adventure tourism in the province, one of the poorest in Argentina.

Here, wealthy foreigners pay up to US$800 (S$1,100) a day to jump off cliff faces with hang gliders, trek through the rugged terrain, or go on off-road adventures in 4x4s.

It is a world apart from the lives of ordinary locals in an area where the average monthly salary is US$533.

Since the crash, the cast and crew of Dropped have seen little of La Rioja but the hotel.

Across Route 76, local Natalia Diaz is absorbed by the scene.

"I never saw so many French people all at once," she said.