Search for plane and cause of Air France crash intensify


Sao Paulo/Paris : As search intensified Thursday for an explanation of why an Air France jetliner with 228 people aboard plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, searchers began plucking fragments of the aircraft out of the water.

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The search has been narrowed to an area of approximately 6,000 sq km, Brazilian air force spokesman Ramon Borges Cardoso said in the port city of Recife.

The zone is located about 1,200 km orth-east of Recife, near the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Islets, a small, uninhabited archipelago that is home to a Brazilian Navy scientific station.

Fragments of the plane have been taken out of the sea to be flown first to the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha and then transferred to Recife.

The pieces apparently came from the interior of the Airbus 330-200 and were described by Cardoso as two yellow, one brown and one white piece of wreckage.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner travelled to Rio de Janeiro Thursday to take part in a memorial for the victims of the crash at the Igreja Candelaria in the city centre with his Brazilian counterpart Celso Amorim.

Many of the relatives of the crash victims broke down in tears during the multi-denominational service.

Meanwhile, the search continued for the cause of the accident.

The Spanish daily El Mundo reported Thursday that two pilots for the Spanish airline Air Comet and a passenger saw a white flash in the area where the plane had plunged into the Atlantic, raising the possibility that it was brought down by an explosion.

The Air Comet plane was travelling the route between Lima, Peru, and Madrid when the three people “suddenly saw far away a strong and intense flash of white light” which then plunged vertically downwards and disappeared in six seconds, one of the pilots wrote in a report to his airline.

The sighting took place early Monday, when the Airbus A330-200, flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, fell into the sea while encountering bad weather.

The pilot also said that he observed storms with intense electrical activity and cloud formations near his route. Air Comet said it had passed the report on to the Spanish civil aviation authorities, Airbus and Air France.

The report revived the hypothesis of an explosion as the cause of the accident, adding another element to the search for an explanation for what caused the worst commercial air disaster since 2001.

The French daily Le Figaro reported Thursday that an individual close to the investigation into the crash said that the aircraft may have been torn apart by an explosion or by a very powerful storm.

“We can see fragments (of the plane) spread over a distance of more than 300 km,” the individual said, speaking on condition that his name not be used.

“This first element suggests an explosion that struck the aircraft in full flight, rather than destruction in contact with the sea.”

This hypothesis does not contradict the possibility of a terrorist bomb or a sudden disintegration caused by violent weather.

However, a German aviation expert told the German Press Agency dpa that the final messages sent by the aircraft before it plunged into the sea early Monday appear to contradict the theory of a violent explosion.

In an interview with the German Press Agency dpa, Heinrich Grossbongardt described a four-minute time span between 0210 and 0214 GMT Monday in which the Airbus A330-200 apparently experienced severe technical problems before all contact was lost.

At 0210, the plane’s system reported that the crew had turned off the automatic pilot in order to fly the plane manually.

This means that the cause of the disaster was probably not violent, because “it shows that the pilots tried to deal with the problem.”