- AF 447 crash - Brazil - France - investigation
The hunt for clues for what brought down an Air France jet over the Atlantic intensified on Thursday with Brazilian navy ships trawling for debris spotted in the crash zone.
Brazil's government has discounted the idea of a mid-air explosion bringing down the plane, which was carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris when it met its fate early on Monday. No distress call was received from the pilots.
Defence Minister Nelson Jobim late Wednesday said a 20-kilometer (12-mile) long fuel slick sighted in the area "means that it is improbable that there was a fire or explosion" because the high-octane jet-fuel would otherwise have been ignited. But he cautioned that that was "just a hypothesis" and stressed that the mystery of Air France flight AF 477 was far from being solved.
French army spokesman Christophe Prazuc said France could not confirm the statement. "We did not see the fuel slick described by our Brazilian colleagues, so I cannot comment that information", he told FRANCE 24.
No bodies have yet been spotted but search vessels located more debris including a seven-meter piece of the plane.
Among the latest clues, Brazilian newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo reported the doomed pilot sent a message just before the plane lost contact. Citing an unidentified Air France source - the paper said the pilot radioed he was entering 'thick black clouds' the kind associated with violent winds and lightning. However, French authorities have declined to comment.
Ten minutes later a series of electronic messages were sent from the plane - indicating the autopilot had disengaged and an onboard computer had switched to an alternate power system. The final message ended with one pointing to a loss of air pressure and electrical failure.
‘Needle in a haystack’
Two Brazilian navy ships arrived in the crash area, about 685 miles (1,100 km) northeast of Brazil's coast, but had not yet retrieved any debris by nightfall. French officials said they may never discover why the plane went down as the flight black box and voice recorders may be lost at the bottom of the ocean, at least 3,000 meters underwater. Experts believe that it will be near-impossible to recover even if the 200-kilometre wide search area is narrowed down.
"It's equivalent to looking for a needle in a haystack," said Pierre Cochonat, of the French marine research institute Ifremer.
Two Brazilian navy vessels, a patrol boat and a corvette, were in the area, 1,000 kilometers off Brazil's northeast coast, officials said.
Three other vessels, including a tanker able to keep the flotilla in the area for weeks, and a French ship with mini-submarines were to arrive over coming days.
A few of the relatives of those on board the Air France Airbus A330 told media they still held out hope their loved ones might have survived. But many others were resigned.
A memorial service was to be held for the 216 passengers and 12 crew in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner attending.
On Wednesday, a similar ceremony was conducted in Notre Dame cathedral with relatives and French President Nicolas Sarkozy hearing a message of condolence from Pope Benedict XVI read out to them.
France, which lost 72 nationals, the biggest group on the plane, is leading the probe into the disaster.
Two French investigators were already at work in Brazil, which lost 58 nationals. The other passengers came from 30 other countries.
If final confirmation comes that all those on board the Air France plane perished, it would be the worst disaster for the French airline in its 70-year history.
It would also be the worst civil aviation accident since 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus A300 crashed in New York killing all 260 people on board.