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Teenage girl survives plane's crash into Indian Ocean

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

MORONI, Comoros -- Officials said a teenage girl was plucked from the sea, the only known survivor after a Yemeni jetliner carrying 153 people crashed into the Indian Ocean on Tuesday as it attempted to land amid severe turbulence and winds.

The crash in waters off this island nation came two years after aviation officials reported equipment faults with the plane, an aging Airbus 310 flying the last leg of a Yemenia airlines flight from Paris and Marseille, France, to Comoros, with a stop in Yemen to change planes.

Khaled el-Kaei, the head of Yemenia's public relations office, said a 14-year-old girl survived the crash, and Yemen's embassy in Washington issued a statement saying a young girl was taken to a hospital. It also said five bodies were recovered.

Sgt. Said Abdilai told Europe 1 radio he rescued the girl after she was found in the water. She couldn't grasp the life ring rescuers threw to her, so he jumped into the sea, Abdilai said.

Yemeni civil aviation deputy chief Mohammed Abdul Qader said the flight data recorder had not been found and it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash. But he said winds in excess of 40 mph were pummeling the plane as it was landing in darkness in the early morning hours Tuesday.

Turbulence was thought to be a factor in the crash, Yemen's embassy in Washington said. Qader said the windy conditions were also hampering rescue efforts.

The Yemenia plane was the second Airbus to crash into the sea this month. An Air France Airbus A330-200 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, killing all 228 people on board, as it flew from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

Mohammed Moqbel, a Yemeni pilot who has flown to the Comoros, said the route can be difficult because of the geography and weather.

"The airport is also very poor in terms of equipment," said Moqbel. "They don't have advanced radars to guide planes."

The tragedy -- and dwindling hopes that anyone else made it out alive -- prompted an outcry in the Comoros, where residents complained of a lack of seat belts on Yemenia flights and planes so overcrowded that passengers had to stand in the aisles.

The Comoros, a former French colony of 700,000 people, is an archipelago of three main islands situated 1,800 miles south of Yemen, between Africa's southeastern coast and the island of Madagascar.

Gen. Bruno de Bourdoncle de Saint-Salvy, the senior commander for French forces in the southern Indian Ocean, said the Airbus 310 crashed in deep waters about nine miles north of the Comoran coast and 21 miles from the Moroni airport. Searchers encountered an oil slick at the site, the Yemeni Embassy statement said.

French aviation inspectors found a "number of faults" in the plane's equipment during a 2007 inspection, French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said on France's i-Tele television Tuesday. He did not elaborate

In Brussels, European Union Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani said the airline had previously met EU safety checks and was not on their blacklist. But he said a full investigation was being launched amid questions about why the passengers -- who originated in Paris -- were transferred on another jet in the Yemeni capital of San'a.

An Airbus statement said the plane that crashed went into service 19 years ago, and had accumulated 51,900 flight hours. It has been operated by Yemenia since 1999. Airbus said it was sending a team of specialists to the Comoros.

The A310-300 is a twin-engine widebody jet that can seat up to 220 passengers. There are 214 A310s in service worldwide, with 41 operators.

A crisis center was set up at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Many passengers were from the French city of Marseille, home to around 80,000 immigrant Comorans, more even than Comoros' capital of Moroni.

Yemenia has long been a target of criticism for the poor condition of its passenger cabins, with recent passenger complaints about missing or faulty seat belts.

Still, analysts have cautioned against equating the condition of the passenger cabin on any airline with the aircraft's maintenance records.

Yemenia airways has a solid safety record. In 2008 it passed the International Airline Transport Association's operational safety audit, a rigorous set of inspections considered an indication of high quality for any airline.

One problem that does crop up with older aircraft, particularly when a certain model has been discontinued, is the issue of fake replacement parts, experts said.

Airline companies sometimes unwittingly purchase fake parts, which are then put into aircraft by their maintenance crews. Despite rigorous international efforts to root out counterfeit spares in the past decade, they are still believed to be in circulation.

"Pirate spare parts remain a big maintenance problem in aviation," said Capt. Harry Eggerschwiler, chief of operations for the African Civil Aviation Authority. "This is true everywhere in the world and not just in (developing) countries."

Some French Comorans insisted their complaints about the airline's safety weren't heeded by authorities.

Zalifa Youssouf, a member of SOS Voyages, which seeks to improve passenger conditions and safety, told France's i-Tele television that the Comoran community had complained about the flight from San'a to Comoros.

She said the planes were dirty, frequently did not have safety belts and that flight attendants often did not speak French, just Arabic which passengers did not understand. "We felt we were in danger," Youssouf said.

Mohamed Ali, a Comoran who went to Yemenia's headquarters in Paris to try to get more information about the doomed flight, said complaints about safety went unheeded. "Some people stand the whole way to Moroni," he said.

In France, school vacations began this week and many on the plane were heading home to visit.

Christophe Prazuck, French military spokesman, said a patrol boat and reconnaissance ship were sent to the crash site as well as a military transport plane. The French were sending divers as well as medical personnel, he said.

Yemenia airline officials said the 11-member crew was made up of six Yemenis, including the pilot, two Moroccans, an Indonesian, an Ethiopian and a Filipino.


Al-Haj contributed to this report from San'a, Yemen. Associated Press writers Deborah Seward, Angela Charlton and Greg Keller in Paris, Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Yoann Guilloux in Saint-Denis de la Reunion, Reunion Island, contributed to this report.


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