Investigators find debris of Air France plane

2011-04-04 10:45

Paris – Undersea robots have located a “large part” of an Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, but haven’t yet found its black box flight recorders, French officials said today.

Victims’ families cautiously welcomed the surprise announcement that search teams have located pieces of the plane, after nearly two years of fruitless efforts to determine what caused it to crash. Investigators have said without the recorders, the cause may never be determined.

All 228 people aboard the plane were killed when the flight, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, slammed into the ocean June 1, 2009, after running into an intense high-altitude thunderstorm.

The French air accident investigation agency BEA said Sunday night that a team aboard the expedition ship Alucia “has located pieces of an aircraft ... in the past 24 hours”.

BEA spokeswoman Martine Del Bono said Monday that the black boxes have not been located.

“I hope to be able to announce that (discovery) in the coming weeks,” she told The Associated Press.

The debris was found at remarkable depths, of between 3 800 and 4 000 metres, Del Bono said.

“In the past we found the tail, scattered pieces, but this time we have found a large part of the plane, surrounded by debris,” said French government minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who oversees environmental and transport issues, on France-Inter radio. “One part has remained rather intact ... in one piece.”

Jean-Baptiste Audosset, who lost his partner in the crash, said the announcement offers “at last a bit of hope”.

He said, however, that families remain cautious after an earlier announcement that parts of the plane had been located turned out to be untrue.

The families have many questions about what exactly was found, where and what it might mean.

Three previous search efforts proved futile in attempts to shed light on the cause of the crash. An international search team is carrying out a fourth effort to find remains of the plane - and especially its flight recorders.

Finding the cause took on new importance last month when a French judge filed preliminary manslaughter charges against Air France and the plane’s manufacturer, Airbus. Experts say without the flight data and voice recorders, authorities will not likely determine what was at fault.

Air France and Airbus are financing the estimated $12.5 million (R84 million) cost of the new search. About $28 million has already been spent on the three previous searches for the jet’s wreckage.

The team involved in this weekend’s discovery was led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, or WHOI, based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The search is being targeted in an area of about 10 000 squared km, several hundred miles off Brazil’s northeastern coast.

Searchers are using up to three autonomous underwater search vehicles, each of which can stay underwater for up to 20 hours while using sonar to scan a mountainous area known as the Mid-Ocean Ridge.

Researchers download the data, and a vehicle with a high resolution camera is sent to check out an area if scientists see evidence of debris.

Air France welcomed the announcement that part of the plane has been found.

“This discovery ... is good news indeed since it gives hope that information on the causes of the accident, so far unresolved, will be found,” the airline said in a statement.

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