Teenage girl survives plane crash in Indian Ocean

Despite a fractured collarbone, a teenage girl clung to the wreckage of a plane for more than 13 hours before rescuers found her floating in the Indian Ocean, authorities said Wednesday. She is the only known survivor of the crash.

ANGELA CHARLTON, Associated Press Writer
TOM MALITI, Associated Press Writer

MORONI, Comoros (AP) — Despite a fractured collarbone, a teenage girl clung to the wreckage of a plane for more than 13 hours before rescuers found her floating in the Indian Ocean, authorities said Wednesday. She is the only known survivor of the crash.

The Yemenia Airbus 310 jet was carrying 153 people when it went down in howling winds early Tuesday in the sea north of the Comoros Islands.

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French officials late Wednesday retracted claims that one of the plane’s black boxes had been found. French Commander Bertrand Mortemard de Boisse told The Associated Press that a signal detected from the debris of Yemenia Flight IY626 was from a distress beacon and not from one of the plane’s black boxes.

The flight data and cockpit voice recorders in those black boxes are crucial to help investigators determine the cause of the crash off this former French colony.

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 gauze bandages on her right elbow and right foot. Her hair was pulled back and she was covered by a blue blanket but she gamely shook the hand of Alain Joyandet, France’s minister for international cooperation.

Her uncle, Joseph Yousouf, said Bahia also had a fracture on her collarbone.

“It is a true miracle. She is a courageous young girl,” Joyandet said, adding that Bahia held onto a piece of the plane from 1:30 a.m Tuesday to 3:00 p.m., then signaled a passing boat, which rescued her.

“She really showed an absolutely incredible physical and moral strength,” he said. “She is physically out of danger, she is evidently very traumatized.”

The girl was traveling with her mother, who is feared dead. They had left Paris on Monday night to see family in the Comoros.

“She’s asking for her mother,” Yousouf told the AP. For fear of upsetting Bahia, Yousouf told her that her mother is in the room next door.

Joyandet said the girl would be flown back to France on Wednesday night and put in a Paris hospital upon arrival. Two ambulances were seen leaving the hospital later Wednesday, and Bahia was believed to be on board.

The passengers were flying the last leg of a journey from Paris and Marseille to Comoros, with a stop in Yemen to change planes. Most of the passengers were from Comoros, sixty-six were French citizens.

The girl’s father told French radio that his oldest daughter could “barely swim” but managed to hang on. Kassim Bakari, who spoke with his oldest daughter by phone, said Bahia 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.”

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.

Said Mohammed, a nurse at El Mararouf hospital in the Comoros capital of Moroni, said the girl was doing well.

The crash a few miles (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.

A top French official said the Airbus 310 crashed in deep water nine miles (14.4 kilometers) north of the Comoran coast and 21 miles (34 kilometers) from the Moroni airport.

The French air accident investigation agency BEA was sending a team of safety investigators and Airbus experts to Comoros, an archipelago of three main islands 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) south of Yemen, between Africa’s southeastern coast and the island of Madagascar.

A respected pilots group, the London-based International Federation of Air Line Pilots Association, said the plane may have been attempting a go-around in rough weather for another approach when it hit the sea.

The 2,900-meter (9,558-feet) long runway at Prince Said Ibrahim International Airport on Moroni island is adequate for modern airliners. But the airport is considered a difficult one for pilots due to prevailing weather conditions and hills to the east of the runway. Some airlines provide special training to pilots who need to fly in there.

Pilots coming in from the north also must land their planes visually and don’t have any all-weather instrument landing system to help them.

“The field in question is thought of as being challenging, and certain operators consider it a daytime-only airport,” said Gideon Ewers of the London-based pilots’ association.

The Yemenia plane was trying to land in the dark, about 1:30 in the morning, amid bad weather.

French and American teams carried out rescue operations Wednesday, fighting heavy seas. Abdul-Khaleq al-Qadi, chairman of Yemenia’s board, said the black boxes, once retrieved, will be taken to France for analysis.

Rescue boats plied the waters north of the main island and scores of people gathered on nearby beaches to watch.

“The search is continuing,” Joyandet said. “No other survivors have been found.”

A French military cargo plane flew over a zone 50 miles (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 sea is pretty rough at the present time, the wind is blowing hard and the drift is strong … there are any survivors, the bodies of the victims and the debris are drifting rapidly towards the north,” said Christophe Prazuck, spokesman for the French military.

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

A tug arrived from the French island of Mayotte to recover survivors, corpses and debris, and a French frigate and another military ship headed to the scene.

The tragedy 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.

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.

Al-Qadi said Yemenia airlines has decided to give the victims’ families euro20,000 ($28,300) for each victim, describing it as “a preliminary decision.” The company also will pay for one person from each family to fly to Moroni to witness the search and rescue operation.

Disputing the French claim, he said maintenance was carried out regularly according to high standards.

“The crash has nothing to do with maintenance,” he told reporters in San’a, adding that the aircraft received maintenance just two months before under the supervision of an Airbus technical team.

“The company has been working for 42 years … what happened was out of (anyone’s) control,” al-Qadi said.

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

Associated Press writers Emmanuel Georges-Picot in Paris, Yoann Guilloux in Saint-Denis de la Reunion and Ahmed al-Haj in San’a, Yemen contributed to this report.

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