France steps up search for China tycoon after chopper crash
French police stepped up their search Sunday for a Chinese billionaire and two others feared dead after their helicopter crashed as he was surveying a newly purchased vineyard in southwest France.
There was little hope of finding alive Lam Kok, a 46-year-old Chinese tea-and-property tycoon, his interpreter and advisor Peng Wang or winemaker James Gregoire after police on Saturday recovered the body of Lam’s 12-year-old son from the back of the wrecked helicopter lying in seven metres (23 feet) of water in the Dordogne river.
The four had boarded the helicopter piloted by Gregoire on Friday to make a celebratory tour of a Bordeaux chateau and wine-growing estate that Lam had just bought from the Frenchman.
After pausing the search on Saturday night, divers resumed scouring the cold waters of the Dordogne around 9:00 am (0800 GMT) on Sunday, working in near total obscurity.
“We are meticulously combing the area, with practically no visibility, almost by hand,” local gendarmerie commander Ghislain Rety said.
Police said strong currents were hampering the search.
Helicopters with infrared cameras were flying over the river and a special sonar designed for finding bodies had arrived from the French city of Strasbourg, Rety said.
Slowly dragged behind a boat, the sonar was to criss-cross the river between its banks.
Some 100 police were searching along the riverbanks and reinforcements were expected.
An autopsy was to be conducted Sunday on the body of Lam’s son, Shun Yu Kok, but officials said there was little hope the reasons for the crash would be quickly identified.
“The causes of the accident have not been determined at this stage and most likely will not be for several weeks,” local prosecutor Christopher Auger said.
The doomed flight took place after a lavish event Friday marking Lam’s multi-million-euro purchase of the 65-hectare (160-acre) wine estate, Chateau de la Riviere.
After a press conference and sumptuous dinner, Gregoire offered to take Lam on a short tour of the vineyards and surrounding grounds in the helicopter.
Lam’s wife pulled out of the flight at the last minute, saying she was “scared of helicopters,” said an AFP photographer who witnessed its take-off.
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.
Lam and his wife headed a Hong Kong-based group named Brilliant, which specialises in rare teas and luxury hotels in China.
They had plans to turn the French chateau into a high-class tea- and wine-tasting centre, with a hotel built nearby.
Wealthy Chinese have developed a taste for fine French wines, and their 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.
Lam’s wife, who serves as company chairwoman, told newspaper Chuncheng Evening News earlier this month that she wanted to disprove negative impressions of Chinese businesspeople buying French vineyards and instead “show people China’s culture and quality”.
The company tended to keep a low profile with the couple rarely speaking to the media, the Beijing Youth Daily said on Sunday, adding that it was told by a Brilliant employee there would be no interviews about the helicopter crash.