Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Debris likely from Air France plane found in Atlantic

AFP - Wednesday, June 3 RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - - Search aircraft found debris on Tuesday believed to be from an Air France flight that disappeared over the Atlantic with 228 people on board, but officials say what brought down the plane remains a mystery.

Brazilian air force aircraft located a seat from a plane, an orange buoy and jet fuel slicks floating 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) off Brazil's northeast coast -- in a remote stretch of the Atlantic Ocean where the flight from Rio de Janeiro bound for Paris disappeared early on Monday.

But an air force spokesman, Colonel Jorge Amaral, cautioned that no item with a serial number or other identification had yet been found that could confirm the debris was from missing Air France flight AF 447.

"The search is continuing because it's very little material in relation to the size" of the Air France Airbus A330, he said.

He added that there was no chance of survivors being found among the debris.

Brazilian navy vessels and a French ship carrying two mini-submarines were on their way to the zone. The submarines are capable of operating at depths of 6,000 meters (19,700 feet), which is also the limit aircraft black boxes can survive.

The zone's average depth is estimated between 4,000 and 5,000 meters (13,100 and 16,400 feet) but has crevasses up to 8,000 meters (26,200 feet) deep, according to Brazilian and French oceanographic experts.

Three cargo ships nearby, two Dutch-flagged and one French, have been asked to go where the debris was found and should arrive "in the next few hours," a Brazilian navy official, Lieutenant Henrique Afonso Lima, said.

If it is confirmed that all aboard flight AF 447 perished, it would be the deadliest civilian aviation accident since 2001 and the worst in Air France's 70-year history.

The possible discovery of what was left of the airliner held the promise that the enigma of what brought the plane down might be solved if its black boxes could be recovered from the bottom of the ocean.

The plane vanished Monday four hours into its 11-hour flight, as it was beyond the reach of radar midway over the Atlantic between South America and Africa, in an area known for its tropical storms .

The pilots issued no mayday. But automatic data signals -- received from the zone where the debris was discovered -- told of multiple electric and pressurization failures.

Air France suggested the four-year-old plane could have been struck by lightning -- a fairly common hazard that by itself should not knock out a modern airliner, but coupled with other problems such as violent turbulence it could be dangerous.

Other theories advanced by experts include pilot error or even the remote possibility of terrorism.

"No hypothesis is being favored at the moment," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday.

"Our only certainty is that there was no distress call sent by the plane, but regular automatic alerts sent over three minutes indicated the failure of all systems," he said.

Air France chief executive Pierre-Henry Gourgeon said Monday the succession of data messages was a "totally unprecedented situation" and that it was "probable" the plane crashed into the ocean shortly afterwards.

More than half of those traveling in the full plane were either French or Brazilian. The others came from 30 countries, mostly in Europe.

The 216 passengers included 126 men, 82 women, seven children and a baby. The crew comprised 11 French nationals and one Brazilian.

Nineteen passengers were employees and partners of a French electrical firm who had won a holiday for hitting sales targets.

Another three were Irishwomen in their 20s who trained together as doctors, including a former member of the famed Riverdance dance troupe.

A 25-year-old descendant of Brazil's long-defunct royal family was also on the passenger manifest.

The French captain, whose name has yet to be released, was 58 and an Air France pilot since 1988 with a great deal of experience, the airline said.

Ten Brazilian aircraft have been deployed to continue searches of the Atlantic, while other aircraft from France, Spain and the United States have also been dispatched to help.

France's defense ministry has asked the United States to focus its spy satellites on the zone.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and others have held out very little hope of survivors but vowed to keep up the search for as long as necessary.

French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, whose brief includes the transport portfolio, said that, if they so wished, relatives of the missing could be flown to the search zone to watch.

Air France and French consular officials were providing counseling and other assistance to the distraught relatives, who were being kept in hotels in Brazil and France closed to journalists.

Prayer services were to be held in Catholic and Muslim temples in Paris on Wednesday for the passengers on the doomed plane. Sarkozy was to attend the ceremony in Notre-Dame cathedral.

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