MOSCOW, Russia - Authorities are investigating a plane crash at the Vnukovo International airport in Moscow, Russiawhich killed the CEO of oil giant Total, Christophe de Margerie. Authorities report De Margerie's private jet struck a snowplough on takeoff.
Russian investigators said the driver of the snow-clearing machine was drunk and that his actions, along with "an error by air traffic controllers", appeared to have led to the crash, a claim disputed by the driver's lawyer.
Investigators also blamed senior airport officials for causing the crash through "criminal negligence" and said several executives would be suspended.
FIRE ON THE TARMAC
Total said De Margerie died during the crash along with three crew members. Vnukovo airport said the Falcon Dassault business jet crashed as it prepared to take off for Paris and that rescue services had put out a blaze.
Visibility was reduced to 350metres at the time, it said, as Moscow saw its first snowfall of the winter on Monday (Oct 20).
The Interstate Aviation Committee, which investigates all Russian air disasters, said: "It has been established that the driver of the snowplough was in a drunken state".
It added that a primary preliminary theory was that "an error by air traffic controllers and the actions of the snowplough driver" were to blame.
The role of "bad weather and errors by pilots will also be checked," it said, as France dispatched three experts to join in the investigation.
The committee also blamed senior airport officials for causing the crash through "criminal negligence" as they failed to ensure proper staff coordination.
Moscow transport investigators said 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.
The snowplough driver has been detained, but his lawyer suggested that his client was being made a scapegoat.
Lawyer Alexander Karabanov told Interfax news agency: "My client has chronic heart disease, he doesn't drink at all. His relatives and doctors can confirm this. We don't want the responsibility for the accident to be shifted to just another ordinary man."
De Margerie was closely aligned in Formula 1 with Renault-powered teams Red Bull and Lotus and driver Romain Grosjean.
At Total, one of the world's biggest oil companies, staff at its Paris headquarters observed a minute's silence for their 63-year-old boss known affectionately as the "Big Moustache" because of his distinctive facial hair.
Total's secretary general Jean-Jacques Guilbaud said: "The group is set up to ensure the proper continuity of its governance and its activities, to deal with this tragic event."
While respected by the industry for expanding Total's activities around the world, De Margerie was also often mired in controversy as he helmed the group when it was embroiled in judicial woes including the UN "oil-for-food" scandal.
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, despite Western sanctions over Moscow's role in the Ukraine conflict.
Even as relations between the West and Russia sank to their lowest since the Cold War, the oil boss had been vocal with his criticism of the sanctions, calling them "a dead-end" and urging "constructive dialogue" instead.
In his last public remarks in Moscow, De Margerie said Total's strategy "remains absolutely unchanged. We are engaged with Russia".
Russian President Vladimir Putin described De Margerie as "a true friend of our country, whom we will remember with the greatest warmth".
In France, President Francois Hollande said he learnt of De Margerie's death with "shock and sadness" while Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France had lost "a great captain of industry and a patriot".CEO SINCE 2007
De Margerie had been chief executive of Total, Europe's third largest oil company after Shell and BP, since 2007 and spent his entire 40-year career there.
A descendant of a family of diplomats and business leaders, he was the grandson of Pierre Taittinger, founder of the eponymous champagne and the luxury goods dynasty.
Married with three children and highly regarded within the oil industry, he was known for his good humour.
De Margerie had taken over the helm of Total at a challenging time for the group.
Shortly after his nomination, he was handcuffed and taken into police custody for more than 24 hours over corruption claims in deals with Iran.
He also had to defend Total against allegations of corruption during the UN "oil-for-food" programme in Iraq.
De Margerie admitted the claims 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."