By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
PARIS, June 2 -- Brazilian search planes located a three-mile path of wreckage in the Atlantic Ocean that officials said came from an Air France jetliner, dashing any lingering hopes for the survival of the 228 people aboard.
Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim told reporters in Rio de Janeiro that Brazilian military planes found the wreckage in an area where ocean depths range from one mile to more than three miles. "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 did not describe them in detail, the Associated Press reported.
Earlier, the Brazilian air force, announcing the discovery of some debris, said its pilots saw no signs of life. Despite continued stormy weather, Brazilian naval vessels were dispatched to the site, about 400 miles northeast of the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, to pick up the debris.
Air France flight 447 was on an overnight flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The twin-engine Airbus A330-200, four years old and recently inspected, was last heard from Monday when, according to Air France and French officials, a burst of automatic emergency signals beginning at 4:14 a.m. Paris time indicated that all its systems had failed. There was no mayday signal and no communication from the pilot, the airline said, indicating that there was probably a sudden catastrophe.
Since then, speculation has raged about what caused the disaster -- a terrorist bomb, a lightning bolt, hail, severe turbulence or heavy frost. But French officials said they still had no real idea and were eliminating no possibility for the time being.
"Our only certainty is that there was no emergency call sent out by the plane," Prime Minister François Fillon said. "But there were regular automatic alerts over three minutes, indicating that all systems were out of service."
Jean-Louis Borloo, the ecology minister supervising the French end of search operations, said finding the plane's "black box" data recorders is a top priority. But he warned it may be difficult because the Atlantic is several thousand feet deep along the scheduled flight path, stretching from northeastern Brazil toward Cape Verde off western Africa.
Air France announced, meanwhile, that a memorial service will be held Wednesday at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for the families of those killed in the worst disaster in the history of the French national airline. In addition, President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said he will meet with family members at his Elysee Palace to keep them informed of search efforts and to express the country's condolences. Sarkozy told the families Monday that those who wished would be flown over the debris field.
French crash investigators visited on Tuesday with some family members, secluded in a hotel near Paris-Charles de Gaulle International Airport, to take DNA samples for identifying bodies if any are found. In addition, they discussed issuing death certificates for victims whose remains may never be recovered. News reports said French security services also were reviewing the passenger list to see whether any names aroused suspicion.
Two Americans were among the victims. They were identified as Michael Harris and his wife, Anne, who had recently moved from Houston to Brazil. Those aboard also included 61 French citizens, 58 Brazilians and nationals from 29 other countries, according to a list compiled by Air France.
A spokesman for the Brazilian air force, Col. Jorge Amaral, told reporters in Brazil that the debris was first sensed during predawn hours by a Brazilian-manufactured Embraer R-99 radar platform, similar to the U.S. AWACS plane. Another aircraft was dispatched at first light to take a look, he said, and airmen reported seeing an orange flotation device, a seat cushion, oil slicks, and small white spots that could be pieces of the white-painted fuselage.
The objects were floating over a 40-square-mile area, Amaral said. Since the Brazilian navy vessels sent to pick them up are unlikely to arrive before Wednesday, the navy recruited several commercial ships in the area to try to recover the debris Tuesday evening.
Investigators planned to focus their efforts on finding serial numbers on some of the objects, Amaral said, to ensure that they came from the Air France plane.
Amaral said the area where the debris was found lay slightly to the right of the normal flight path for Flight 447, according to accounts relayed by news agencies. That could mean that the pilot was banking right in an attempt to turn around and return to Brazil, he suggested. But only by recovering the plane's flight recorders and debris could any firm conclusions be drawn, he said.
France's defense minister, Hervé Morin, said two French navy ships were headed to the area: a landing vessel that sailed from Portugal and a frigate that was deviated from anti-drug patrols in the Caribbean.
In addition, the French air force assigned two Breguet-Atlantique maritime reconnaissance planes and a Falcon 50 reconnaissance craft to the search. Morin said they and the warships will remain in the area as long as it takes to find the wreckage.