MOSCOW: The chief executive officer (CEO) of French oil giant Total, Christophe de Margerie, died in a plane crash at a Moscow airport late on Monday when the private jet he was using struck a snowplough on takeoff.
Russian investigators said on Tuesday the driver of the snow-clearing machine was drunk and that his actions, along with “an error by air traffic controllers,” appeared to be to blame for the crash.
Total, Europe’s third largest oil company, confirmed the death of its 63-year-old boss and said its board would call an emergency meeting.
“Total confirms with deep regret and great sadness that chairman and CEO Christophe de Margerie died just after 10 pm [Paris time] [8:00 p.m. Manila time] on October 20 in a private plane crash at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow, following a collision with a snow removal machine,” the company said in a statement.
“Four people were found dead at the scene of the accident, including three crew members and Christophe de Margerie,” it added.
French President Francois Hollande issued a statement saying he learned of De Margerie’s death with “shock and sadness.”
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France had lost “a great captain of industry and a patriot”. He called de Margerie “a friend” and expressed “deep sadness” at his death.
Just hours before the crash, De Margerie had met Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at his country residence outside Moscow to discuss foreign investment in Russia, the Vedomosti business daily reported.
Fire broke out
The Vnukovo airport said in a statement that the Falcon Dassault business aviation jet crashed as it prepared to take off for Paris with one passenger and three crew on board.
“During run-up at 11:57 p.m. [7:57 p.m. Manila time], there was a collision with the airport’s snowplough. As a result of the crash, the passenger and all the crew members died,” the airport’s statement said.
The airport said visibility was 350 meters (yards) at the time of the accident. Moscow saw its first snowfall of the winter on Monday.
The airport said its rescue services were sent to the scene and “immediately started extinguishing a fire that had broken out.”
TASS news agency also confirmed the death of De Margerie and three French crew members.
A spokeswoman for transport investigators, Tatyana Morozova, told Interfax that three men and a 39-year-old woman died.
The crash is being investigated by the Interstate Aviation Committee, which probes all Russian air accidents, and experts from Russia’s federal aviation agency.
The investigating committee said in a statement that “it has been established that the driver of the snowplough was in a drunken state.”
It added that a preliminary theory was that “an error by air traffic controllers and the actions of the snowplough driver” were to blame.
The possible role of “bad weather and errors by pilots will also be checked,” it said.
The plane’s black boxes have been recovered, airport spokeswoman Yelena Krylova told the RIA Novosti news agency.
Moscow transport investigators said in a statement they had opened a criminal probe into breaches of aviation safety rules causing multiple deaths through negligence, which carries a maximum jail term of seven years.
French experts were to take part in the investigation, Interfax reported, citing a source in the rescue operation.
“The French side is informed. They should send experts. This will happen very soon,” the source was cited as saying.
The airport was closed temporarily to clear up the scene of the accident but resumed normal operations at 1:30 am (9:30 p.m. Manila time).
CEO since 2007
De Margerie had been chief executive of Total, Europe’s third largest oil company after BP and Shell, since 2007.
He had worked for the company for 40 years, spending his entire career there, and was known affectionately as the “Big Moustache” because of his prominent facial hair which was his most striking physical feature.
A descendant of a family of diplomats and business leaders, he was the grandson of Pierre Taittinger, founder of Taittinger champagne and the luxury goods dynasty.
Married with three children and highly regarded within the oil industry, he was known for his good humor.
De Margerie had steered Total through tough times including defending the company against allegations of corruption during the United Nations “oil-for-food” program in Iraq.
He admitted the allegations had taken their toll on the company. “Most people, when they speak of Total do not know what it is, but know it is not good,” he said in 2009.
Total said in September that work on constructing a new natural gas liquefaction plant in northwestern Siberia was continuing despite Western sanctions buffeting Russia over its role in the conflict in Ukraine.
Total is developing the plant with Novatek of Russia and Chinese oil group CNPC.
Total also announced in May it had signed a deal with Russia’s second biggest oil company Lukoil to explore and develop shale oil deposits in western Siberia. But De Margerie told the Financial Times last month that the project had been halted because of European Union and US sanctions.