Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki, who was overseeing a graft investigation into scores of powerful politicians, was killed in a plane crash on Thursday, raising questions about who will take over the country's biggest ever corruption case.
Rescuers found three bodies in the wreckage of the small, twin-prop plane that crashed off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state amid heavy rains, firefighters said. Federal prosecutors and police said they would immediately open an investigation in addition to that of aviation authorities.
Zavascki, 68, had in recent weeks been reviewing explosive testimony from executives at engineering group Odebrecht, expected to implicate an array of politicians in a vast kickback scandal centering on state-run oil company Petrobras and other enterprises.
The Hawker Beechcraft C90GT carrying Zavascki left a Sao Paulo airport around 1 p.m. (1500 GMT).
The plane crashed into the sea about 80 minutes later, roughly 3 km (2 miles) from the airport near the colonial tourist town of Paraty, according to air force and civil aviation authorities.
A witness to the accident, Lauro Koehler, who was on a boat near the site of the crash, told TV station GloboNews that visibility was near zero because of the rain, but that he saw the plane banking sharply and losing altitude on its approach.
"The curve the pilot was making seemed too severe," Koehler said. "But the plane kept curving, to the point that my wife screamed, 'It's going to crash!' Then the plane dropped into the sea."
Koehler said the tip of the right wing clipped the water first and then its nose plunged into the ocean "with an incredible blow."
The boat Koehler was on immediately went to the wreckage.
"We saw there was a woman alive inside the plane," he said. "We tried to open the plane, but it was too late, and she sunk down into the wreckage."
Luxury hotel chain Emiliano, which holds the license for the aircraft, confirmed the deaths of the pilot Osmar Rodrigues, whom family said had been flying for 20 years, and Carlos Alberto Fernandes Filgueiras, owner of the hotel chain, but gave no information about a fourth female passenger.
Condolences poured in from federal prosecutors and senior politicians, including some named in the sweeping graft probe - known as Operation Car Wash - that has shaken Brazil's political establishment over the past three years.