Yemenia Airbus black box found

23:30, Jul 29 2009
Yemeni plane crash search
YEMENI PLANE CRASH: Rescuers return after searching for the missing A310-300 airplane, that crashed north of Comores island.

A bruised teenage girl clung to the wreckage of a Yemeni plane for more than 13 hours before rescuers found her floating in the Indian Ocean, a French official said on Wednesday.

There was no word on any other survivors, but French officials said one of the plane's black boxes had been found.

The Yemenia Airbus 310 jet carrying 153 people to island nation of Comoros crashed into the sea early Tuesday as it attempted to land in the dark amid howling winds.

An Associated Press reporter saw 14-year-old Bahia Bakari in a Comoros hospital Wednesday as she was visited by government officials. She was conscious with bruises on her face and a gauze bandage on her elbow.

"It is a true miracle. She is a courageous young girl," Alain Joyandet, France's minister for international cooperation, said at the hospital. "She held onto a piece of the plane from 1:30 a.m to 3:00 p.m. She has lost her mother. Her father arrives tomorrow."

The girl's father told French radio that his daughter was "fragile" and could "barely swim" but managed to hang on.

Kassim Bakari said he spoke with his oldest daughter by phone after Tuesday's crash. Bahia had left Paris on Monday night with her mother to see family in the Comoros.

He said she was ejected and found herself beside the plane.

"She couldn't feel anything, and found herself in the water. She heard people speaking around her but she couldn't see anyone in the darkness," Bakari said on France's RTL radio. "She's a very timid girl, I never thought she would escape like that."

Said Mohammed, a nurse at El Mararouf hospital in the Comoros capital of Moroni, said the girl was doing well and doctors would release more on her condition later Wednesday.

Sgt. Said Abdilai told Europe 1 radio that Bahia was too weak to grasp the life ring rescuers threw to her, so he jumped into the sea to get her. He said rescuers gave the trembling girl warm water with sugar.

The crash a few kilometers 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 to the Comoros, with a stop in Yemen to change planes.

Most of the passengers were from the Comoros, a former French colony. Sixty-six on board were French nationals.

Turbulence was believed to be a factor in the crash, Yemen's embassy in Washington said.

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 14.4 kilometers north of the Comoran coast and 34 kilometers from the Moroni airport.

A French military cargo plane flew Wednesday over a zone 80 kilometers north of Grand Comoros Island, while two inflatable dinghies sent by French forces on La Reunion island combed waters closer to the coast.

"The search is continuing," Joyandet said. "No other survivors have been found for the moment."

Col. Dominique Fontaine, who is managing the rescue operations, said Wednesday that no other debris has been found so far.

A French tug arrived from the French island of Mayotte to recover survivors, corpses and debris, while a French frigate diverted from anti-piracy operations, the Nivose, and another French military ship headed to the scene.

Both France and Airbus sent experts to the Comoros to aid in the investigation.

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

The Comoros, home to some 700,000 people, is an archipelago of three main islands situated 2,900 kilometers south of Yemen, between Africa's southeastern coast and the island of Madagascar.

French aviation inspectors found a "number of faults" in the plane's equipment during a 2007 inspection, French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said.

European Union Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani said the airline had previously met EU safety checks but would now face a full investigation amid questions why passengers were put on another jet in the Yemeni capital of San'a.

The vice president of Comoros criticized French officials for not telling his nation about any suspected problems.

"We wish the French could have informed us of any irregularity or any problems with that plane," Idi Nadhoim said Wednesday on France-24 television.

"Most if not all of the planes of Yemenia are Airbus," he said. "They are supposed to be serviced by Airbus."

"We trust the civil aviation authorities of the countries we are working with," he added, suggesting that French authorities discriminated against "those French who are left by themselves to fly this type of plane" - French citizens from former French colonies.

Airbus said the plane that crashed went into service 19 years ago, in 1990, and had accumulated 51,900 flight hours. It has been operated by Yemenia since 1999.