2 Bodies, Debris Linked to Air France Flight, Narrowing Search of Atlantic

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 7, 2009

PARIS, June 6 -- Brazilian searchers recovered two bodies and several pieces of debris Saturday that officials said were from an Air France jetliner that plunged into the Atlantic during a violent thunderstorm.

The discovery provided French investigators with their first indication of the exact area where the Airbus A330-200 with 228 people aboard went down early Monday while flying about 400 miles northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands. Analysis of the debris could also provide clues to what led to the crash, which has remained unexplained.

Col. Jorge Amaral, a Brazilian air force spokesman, told reporters at search headquarters in Recife that the searchers found a backpack with a laptop computer inside and a leather briefcase containing a ticket for the flight, Air France 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, in the name of a passenger listed on the flight manifest. He did not identify the passenger.

In addition, Amaral said, an airline seat plucked from the water by a search vessel carried a serial number that will provide a second means of identification. The seat's color and type indicated it came from the doomed plane, he added, but the serial number was relayed to Air France for confirmation.

Amaral's comments, reported by wire services from Recife, seemed designed to convey assurances that, this time, the recoveries were indeed from the fallen aircraft. Flotsam recovered by a Brazilian helicopter, including a piece of a wooden pallet and a pair of flotation devices, was hailed Thursday as the first discovery of debris from the crashed plane. But it turned out upon examination by experts in Recife on Friday to have come from another source, perhaps a passing ship.

French officials since then have cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying repeatedly that they have little to go on and are still regarding the crash as a mystery. There was no immediate reaction in Paris to the Brazilian announcement.

Amaral did not say whether the two bodies, which were discovered separately, carried documents that would permit their identification. They were found several hours apart floating on the surface of the ocean, he said, without describing their condition. The aircraft carried 216 passengers and a crew of 12.

French officials' caution has remained deep because, until Saturday's discovery, the crash area was unknown and no signals have been picked up from the flight recorders, or "black boxes."

Paul-Louis Arslanian, who heads France's Inquiry and Analysis Bureau, said at a news conference in Paris that the black boxes may never be found. The beacons that emit signals to guide searchers typically last about 30 days, he said, but the Atlantic in the area of the crash is as much as 9,000 feet deep, with a seabed of jagged mountains and valleys.

"We absolutely don't have any guarantee that the beacons of the black boxes are still attached to the recorders," he said, according to news agencies.

The French Defense Ministry on Friday dispatched a nuclear attack submarine to the area to make sweeps deep underwater to try to pick up signals from the beacons. It is expected to arrive in several days, joining a flotilla of Brazilian and French ships and aircraft scouring the vast ocean.

Arslanian said Airbus, the European consortium that is the plane's manufacturer, had sent out notices before the crash to the approximately 50 airlines that fly A330 planes suggesting replacement of speed detectors located on the outside skin of the fuselage. This was regarded as a possibly important factor because, immediately before the crash, Flight 447 emitted automatic signals indicating its speed readings were not functioning properly, leading to suggestions that the pilots may have been seeing false information on their instruments.

Alain Bouillard, who is spearheading the inquiry, told the Associated Press that the sensors on the A330-200 used for Flight 447 had not been changed. But Airbus said the notice it sent out was discretionary and was not designed as an urgent security recommendation.

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