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France chopper crash: search on for China billionaire

world Updated: Dec 22, 2013 09:53 IST

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Rescue teams are scouring the Dordogne river in southwestern France for the body of a Chinese billionaire missing after a helicopter crash while he was flying over a Bordeaux wine estate he had just bought.

There was little hope that Lam Kok, a 46-year-old tea-and-property tycoon, or the other occupants of the helicopter survived. The body of Lam's 12-year-old son was pulled from the underwater crash site in the early hours of Saturday.

Still missing are the bodies of Lam and the two other occupants: the billionaire's interpreter; and James Gregoire, a French businessman who had sold Lam the vineyard and who was piloting the private helicopter when it went down Friday.

Lam's wife had pulled out of the flight at the last minute, saying she was "scared of helicopters," said an AFP photographer who attended the lavish event Friday marking Lam's purchase of the 65-hectare (160-acre) wine estate and chateau.

Since early Saturday, police divers have been looking for the bodies in the river, while officers with dogs have searched along the river banks.

Diplomats from China's embassy in France were at the scene "to follow the search and provide assistance to the families," local French officials said in a statement.

Mangled parts of the chopper's fuselage and a camera were retrieved from the crash site, an AFP photographer saw. But police said strong currents were complicating the search for the three missing.

High-profile chateau purchase

Lam had celebrated his purchase of the Chateau de la Riviere, one of the region's oldest estates, with an extravagant event Friday.

He organised a press conference, and spent time introducing himself as the new owner to staff before hosting a sumptuous dinner.

Gregoire, the former owner, then offered to take Lam on a short tour of the vineyards and surrounding grounds in the helicopter.

Gregoire was seen patiently carrying out his pre-flight procedures with a check-list resting on his knees.

When the four did not return after 20 minutes, employees at the vineyard contacted emergency services.

Gregoire himself had bought the property, the largest in Bordeaux's Fronsac wine-producing region and close to the prestigious Saint-Emilion domain, in 2003 -- a year after the previous owner died in a plane crash.

During Friday's publicity event, the vineyard's managing director, Xavier Buffo, told reporters Lam's purchase was the largest Chinese investment in Bordeaux property to date.

"We can't believe this," Buffo told AFP Saturday after the crash. "We can't take it in, it's unthinkable."

He said the Lam family's lawyer and financial advisor were with the wife to help her manage the tragedy.

"It's out of the question to talk about the future. For the moment we're just handling one thing after the next," Buffo said.

Lam headed a Hong Kong-based group named Brilliant, which specialises in rare teas and luxury hotels in China. He had plans to turn the French chateau into a high class tea- and wine-tasting centre.

The group -- whose interests range from Pu'er, a dark fermented tea from China's Yunnan region, to top-end resorts -- also planned to build a hotel near the vineyard.

Wealthy Chinese have developed a taste for fine French wines and their extensive buying power has been credited with pushing prices for certain vintages to record levels.

In recent years they have increasingly taken to buying French vineyards as well. The value of each transaction has generally been under 10 million euros ($13.6 million).