A billionaire Hong Kong businessman is feared dead after a helicopter flown by the man who had just sold him a thirty million Euros Bordeaux chateau crashed into the river Dordogne.
Lam Kok, 46, his 12-year-old son, an unnamed interpreter and James Gregoire, the former owner of the Château de la Riviere at Fronsac, are all believed to have died in the crash on Friday evening.
A previous owner of the chateau was killed in a light plane crash in 2002, meaning that three successive owners of the middle-ranking Bordeaux vineyard have died in air accidents in the space of 11 years.
Witnesses said that they saw two people struggling in the icy, rushing water of the Dordogne soon after the helicopter, owned by Mr Gregoire, came down. It is feared that the survivors were swept away and drowned in a river which was in full tidal flood.
One body, believed to be that of the boy, was recovered on Friday night while police divers, inflatable launches, tracker-dogs and helicopters are searching for the other victims.
Mr Kok is the owner of the Hong Kong based Brilliant group, which owns upmarket hotels and other properties and produces quality teas from the Pu’er plantation in the Yunnan region of China. On Thursday, he signed papers to buy the 65 hectare (160 acre) Château de la Riviere from Mr Gregoire for an estimated €30m.
Dozens of low or middle range Bordeaux vineyards have been sold to Chinese buyers in the last five years but this was the most expensive and prestigious deal so far. Château de la Riviere is the biggest and most respected vineyard in the Fronsac region of Bordeaux and its best wines sell for around €40 a bottle.
Just before the crash, Mr Kok had told vineyard employees that he intended to preserve the quality of their products and develop the Château itself into a luxury hotel and tasting centre for both wines and tea.
Mr Gregoire, who owns two other vineyards in the Bordeaux area, was a well-known and popular figure in the French wine industry. He was said to have improved the quality of Château de la Riviere wines since he bought the domain in 2003, a year after the death of its previous owner Jean Leprince in a light plane accident.
After a celebratory lunch and press conference on Friday, Mr Gregoire invited Mr Kok to join him in a helicopter tour of his new property. Mr Kok’s wife originally intended to join them but pulled out at the last minute saying that she was scared of helicopters. The alarm was raised when the aircraft failed to return after 20 minutes.
Michel Galardini, 58, told the local newspaper Sud Ouest that he saw the helicopter fly overhead as he returned from duck hunting. “We are used to seeing him flying around his vineyard and over the river, especially when there is a tidal bore running,” he said. “The helicopter was flying very low, only 10 or 15 metres over the water. I thought that was a bit strange.”
A few minutes later, he said, he heard a “deafening crash”. “There was a huge amount of foam and I could see two people struggling in the water,” he added.