CEO of French oil giant Total killed in plane crash

An airport security guard at the entrance of the Vnukovo-3 Business Aviation Center at Moscow's Vnukovo airport.

An airport security guard at the entrance of the Vnukovo-3 Business Aviation Center at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport.

France has lost ‘a great captain of industry and a patriot’

MOSCOW: The CEO of French oil giant Total, Christophe de Margerie, has died in a plane crash at a Moscow airport when the private jet he was using 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 be to blame for the crash.

Total, Europe’s third largest oil company, confirmed the death of its 63-year-old boss known affectionately as the “Big Moustache” because of his distinctive facial hair and said its board would call an emergency meeting.

The group’s stocks slid 2.0 percent at start of trading on the accident, but then quickly recovered.

While admired by the industry for expanding Total’s activities around the world, he was also often in controversy for helming Total when it was embroiled in judicial woes including the UN “oil-for-food” scandal.

French 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”.

Condolences and tributes poured in from other political leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin described De Margerie as “a true friend of our country, whom we will remember with the greatest warmth”.

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.

In a statement confirming the tragedy, Total said De Margerie “died just after 10 pm (Paris time) (2000 GMT) on October 20 in a private plane crash at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow, following a collision with a snow removal machine.”

“Four people were found dead at the scene of the accident, including three crew members and Christophe de Margerie.”

The Vnukovo airport said in a statement that the Falcon Dassault business aviation jet crashed as it prepared to take off for Paris.

Visibility was 350 meters at the time of the accident, the airport said, as 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”.

Experts from the Interstate Aviation Committee, which investigates all Russian air accidents, and officials from Russia’s federal aviation agency have launched a probe into the accident.

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 primary 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.

France said Tuesday it will dispatch three experts to join in the investigation.

The airport was closed temporarily to clear up the scene of the accident but resumed normal operations at 1:30 am (2130 GMT Monday).

De Margerie had been chief executive of Total, Europe’s third largest oil company after BP and Shell, since 2007, and spent his entire 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 time when the company was embroiled in several legal woes.

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,” 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.

The group 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 due to the EU and US sanctions.

 
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