All six people on board a helicopter died Wednesday when it crashed in flames in an area often referred to as France's answer to the Grand Canyon, officials say.
Francis Mene, a defense official, said the helicopter crashed while carrying out a test flight in the Verdon Gorge in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in southeastern France.
All six were employees of aviation company Eurocopter. The EADS-owned firm issued a statement confirming the aircraft involved was manufactured by them, and was being delivered to a buyer.
They added that they were working on identifying the circumstances and exact cause of the accident.
Laurence Fortini, the owner of a hotel in the village of Aiguines, told The Associated Press by telephone that she rushed to the hotel's terrace on hearing a "loud, abnormal sound," and then saw the helicopter plunge into the river below.
"It crashed some hundred meters below on the river bank," and firemen had told her it "got caught on an EDF (electricity) cable," she said. Guests, who interrupted their dinner to watch the drama, initially thought they saw someone jump from the helicopter, she said, but it was part of the helicopter falling off.
"It touched the beach and exploded. It burned and burned. There was huge black smoke," she said.
The rocky, limestone area — seen as France's answer to the Grand Canyon — is one of Europe's most beautiful river canyons and extremely popular with tourists and hikers. At 700 meters (2297 feet) deep, it is also one of Europe's biggest.
Eurocopter is yet to reveal the identities of those involved. It says there was no one else onboard.