Search crews find debris but no survivors at Air France crash site | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 04.06.2009
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Search crews find debris but no survivors at Air France crash site

Search and rescue teams scouring the suspected crash site of Air France flight 447 have found debris and oil believed to be from the ill-fated Airbus. No trace of any of the 228 people on board has been found.

This undated picture taken at Houston's George Bush international airport, shows the Air France Airbus 330-200

Wreckage and oil from the Airbus has been located

Despite an intensive search, Brazil's air force and navy have found no trace of the 228 people on board the Air France plane that vanished in a mysterious plunge into a rough and dangerous section of the Atlantic Ocean three days ago.

"No bodies or survivors have been found," Brazil's defense minister, Nelson Jobim, said on Wednesday evening at a press conference in Brasilia. "As well as bodies sinking, you also have problems along the coast of Pernambuco that you know about," Jobim added in reference to sharks. He added that it could take several days for bodies to float to the surface.

It is seen as next to impossible that any of the passengers or crew survived the crash, even as experts raised the possibility the Airbus 330-200 had disintegrated in mid-air.

Search crews flying over the Atlantic found debris from Air France flight 447 spread over more than 90 kilometers (55 miles) of ocean on Wednesday, reinforcing the possibility it broke up in the air.

Newly spotted traces of the plane included a 20 kilometer-long fuel stain and various objects spread across a five kilometer area, including one metallic object seven meters (23 feet) in diameter, thought to be part of the fuselage or the tail.

Experts said extreme turbulence or decompression during stormy weather may have caused the A330 to crash.

Bomb theory ruled out due to oil slicks

"I continue to think violent turbulence caused structural damage to the plane," said Jose Carlos Pereira, former head of Brazil's airport authority Infraero. "Its fall was localized but its destruction was total," Pereira told Reuters.

Jobim said the existence of large fuel stains in the water likely ruled out an explosion, undercutting speculation about a bomb attack.

"The existence of oil stains could exclude the possibility of a fire or explosion," he said. "If we have oil stains, it means it wasn't burned."

Brazil's Defense Minister Nelson Jobim speaks about the Air France flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean

Nelson Jobim explains where the debris was found

Air France said on Wednesday it had received an anonymous telephone warning that a bomb was on a flight leaving Buenos Aires on May 27, four days before the crash. A spokesman said the plane was checked, no bomb was found and the aircraft left an hour and a half late. He added that such alerts were relatively common.

The Brazilian navy was expected to concentrate its search efforts on Thursday on a 230-square-kilometer defined zone near the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Islets, a small, uninhabited archipelago that is home to a Brazilian navy scientific station about 1,200 kilometers north-east of Brazil's mainland.

"There is no doubt that the crash site is in this place," Jobim said.

Crash site provides serious challenge to recovery efforts

Recovery workers face difficult challenges, with strong currents and uneven topography in the region, where the Atlantic plunges to a depth of 4,000 meters and has spiking underwater mountain peaks.

This aerial view shows the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, northeast of Brazil

Debris was spotted in the waters off the Fernando de Noronha archipelago

France is dispatching a mini-submarine that can explore to a depth of 19,680 feet and will try to locate the Airbus' flight data and voice recorders, which could shed light on the cause of the crash.

The most urgent focus of any search is finding the two black boxes mandatory on every large plane: a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder, which are essential in helping investigators in the painstaking search for the cause of a plane crash.

"We have to find the black boxes," said Paul-Louis Arslanian, director of France's Office of Accident Investigations and Analyses (BEA) which is leading the investigation. "This aviation catastrophe is the worst this country has ever suffered. We cannot allow ourselves to speculate. We must verify everything."

The recorders are designed to send homing signals for up to 30 days after they hit water, but there is no guarantee they even survived the impact with the sea, said Arslanian.

"I am not totally optimistic. We cannot rule out that we will not find the flight recorders," he added.

Brazilian investigators are to gather aircraft debris on Fernando de Noronha, a sparsely populated volcanic archipelago and nature reserve off Brazil northeastern coast. US accident inspectors are to also get involved since the engine was built by General Electric and some of the instruments were made by Honeywell, according to US media reports.

German expert suspects myriad of technical failures

German aviation expert Heinrich Grossbongardt, analyzing sparse details provided by Air France, gave an account suggesting several minutes of severe technical problems on the Airbus 330 before it crashed.

In an interview with the German DPA press agency, Grossbongardt described a four-minute time span between 0310 and 0314 CET on Monday in which the A330 apparently experienced severe technical problems before all contact was lost.

At 0310, the plane's system reported that the crew had turned off the automatic pilot in order to fly the plane manually.

an Airbus A330-200 jetliner from the French company Air France

A combination of problems could have brought the plane down

"Then, for a span of two to three minutes, there was a flood of malfunction messages: the navigation equipment had collapsed, the image on the onboard monitors was gone, and other things," Grossbongardt said.

The last information sent was at 0314: "The cabin pressure had dropped. That was the last report that was automatically transmitted from the airplane via satellite to company headquarters," he said.

Grossbongardt said the sequence of events also spoke against a mid-air bombing. Four minutes between the shut down of the auto pilot to the drop of cabin pressure "is a very long time. That means that the pilots were trying to get control of the problem."

He also ruled out a lightning strike, saying: "A lightning strike does not bring down any plane of this size from the sky."

Mourning for victims continues in Brazil, France

In Brazil on Wednesday, where Air France flight 447 took off, the country was in the midst of three days of official mourning while in Paris, the destination of the ill-fated flight, French President Nicolas Sarkozy joined other dignitaries at a multi-denominational service at Notre Dame Cathedral commemorating the victims.

The 228 people on board were from 32 countries, including 72 French, 60 Brazilians and 26 Germans.

nda, AFP/dpa/Reuters

Editor: Chuck Penfold

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