Brazil confirms Air France jet crashed in Atlantic Ocean

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

FERNANDO DE NORONHA, Brazil -- Brazilian military planes found a three-mile path of wreckage in the Atlantic Ocean, confirming that an Air France jet carrying 228 people crashed in the sea, Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said Tuesday.

Jobim told reporters in Rio de Janeiro that the discovery "confirms that the plane went down in that area," hundreds of miles from the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha.

"There isn't the slightest doubt that the debris is from the Air France plane," Jobim said.

He said the strip of wreckage included metallic and nonmetallic pieces, but he did not describe them in detail. No bodies were spotted in the crash of the Airbus A330 in which all aboard are believed to have died.

The discovery came hours after authorities announced they had found an airplane seat, an orange buoy and signs of fuel in a part of the Atlantic Ocean where ocean depths range from less than one mile to more than three miles.

Jobim said recovery of the plane's cockpit voice and data recorders and other wreckage could be difficult because much of the wreckage sank.

"It's going to be very hard to search for it because it could be at a depth of 2,000 meters or 3,000 meters [1.2 miles to 1.8 miles] in that area of the ocean," Jobim said.

Finding the wreckage

The initial discovery of wreckage announced before Jobim spoke came about 36 hours after the jet went missing as it flew from Rio de Janeiro toward Paris.

A Brazilian air force spokesman said the two spots where debris was located suggested the pilots may have tried to turn the plane around to return to Fernando de Noronha.

"The locations where the objects were found are toward the right of the point where the last signal of the plane was emitted," said the spokesman, Col. Jorge Amaral. "That suggests that it might have tried to make a turn, maybe to return to Fernando de Noronha, but that is just a hypothesis."

Jobim made the announcement after two commercial ships that joined the search late Tuesday morning reached sites where the debris was found, a Navy spokeswoman said.

"Once they come across the objects, they will be analyzed to determine if they are parts of the plane or just junk," she said.

A U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance plane and 21 crew members arrived in Brazil on Tuesday morning from El Salvador and were to begin overflying the zone in the afternoon, U.S. officials said in a statement. The plane can fly low over the ocean for about 12 hours at a time and has radar and sonar designed to track submarines underwater.

The French dispatched a research ship equipped with unmanned submarines to the debris site. The subs can explore depths of up to 19,600 feet. The U.S. was considering contributing unmanned underwater vehicles in the search as well, according to a defense source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

The four-year-old plane was last heard from at 9:14 p.m. Central time Sunday, about four hours after it left Rio.

If no survivors are found, it would be the world's worst civil aviation disaster since the November 2001 crash of an American Airlines jetliner in the New York City borough of Queens that killed 265 people.

Unknown cause

Investigators on both sides of the ocean are trying to determine what brought the plane down, with few clues to go on. Potential causes include violently shifting winds and hail from towering thunderheads, lightning or some combination of other factors.

The crew made no distress call before the crash, but the plane's system sent an automatic message just before it disappeared, reporting lost cabin pressure and electrical failure.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that if the debris is confirmed to be part of Flight 447, "This will allow us to better determine the search zone."

"We are in a race against the clock in extremely difficult weather conditions and in a zone where depths reach up to 7,000 meters [22,966 feet]," he told lawmakers in the lower house of French parliament Tuesday. Black box recorders can emit signals for up to 30 days.

The chance of finding survivors now "is very, very small, even nonexistent," said Jean-Louis Borloo, the French minister overseeing transportation.

The Airbus A330-200 was cruising normally at 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) and 522 mph (840 kph) just before it disappeared.

But just north of the equator, a line of towering thunderstorms loomed. Bands of extremely turbulent weather stretched across the Atlantic toward Africa.

Borloo called the A330 "one of the most reliable planes in the world" and said lightning alone, even from a fierce tropical storm, probably couldn't have brought down the plane.

"There really had to be a succession of extraordinary events to be able to explain this situation," Borloo said on RTL radio Tuesday.

France's junior minister for transport, Dominique Bussereau, said the plane sent "a kind of outburst" of automated messages just before it disappeared, "which means something serious happened, as eventually the circuits switched off."

French military spokesman Christophe Prazuck said France has three military patrol aircraft flying over the central Atlantic, but could shift its search operations closer to the site of the Brazilian discovery. He said an AWACS radar plane also had been dispatched and should join the operation on Wednesday.

French police were studying passenger lists and maintenance records, and preparing to take DNA from passengers' relatives to help identify any bodies.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin said "we have no signs so far" of terrorism, but all hypotheses must be studied.

Alain Bouillard, who led the probe into the crash of the Concorde in July 2000, was put in charge of France's accident investigation team.

President Barack Obama told French television stations the United States is ready to do everything necessary to find out what happened.

On board the flight were 61 French citizens, 58 Brazilians, 26 Germans, nine Chinese and nine Italians. A lesser number of citizens from 27 other countries also were on the passenger list.

Two Americans living in Rio de Janeiro were on board. Michael Harris, 60, a geologist, and his wife Anne, 54, were headed to Europe for work and vacation. They lived previously in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Among the passengers were three young Irish doctors, returning from a two-week vacation in Brazil. Aisling Butler's father John paid tribute to his 26-year-old daughter, from Roscrea, County Tipperary.

"She was a truly wonderful, exciting girl. She never flunked an exam in her life -- nailed every one of them -- and took it all in her stride," he said.


Alan Clendenning reported from Sao Paulo. Associated Press writers Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo; Marco Sibaja in Brasilia; and Angela Charlton, Emma Vandore, Jean-Pierre Verges and Laurent Joan-Grange in Paris contributed to this report.

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