Air France 447 - More Bodies Recovered Near Site of Plane Crash.

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Brazilian Air Force, via Reuters

Brazilian Navy sailors fished debris from the Atlantic Ocean in their search for the remains of Air France Flight 447.

Published: June 7, 2009

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — As searchers pulled 15 more bodies from the Atlantic on Sunday near the site of last weekend’s crash of an Air France plane, a mystery that riveted the world — what happened to a 200-ton jetliner — became a fight against time and currents to salvage rapidly disappearing evidence.

The bits and pieces of the plane, Air France Flight 447, recovered over the weekend — as well as the first bodies, of two men on Saturday morning — narrowed the search to a region of several hundred square miles some 600 miles off the northeast coast of Brazil.

But the answer to why the Airbus 330 jet carrying 228 people from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic eight days ago remained elusive as an armada of French and Brazilian ships and planes continued to scour the ocean for debris and the flight data and cockpit voice recorders lying perhaps miles below the surface. On Sunday, French officials confirmed that their investigation was focusing on airspeed data.

Brazilian military authorities also confirmed Sunday only what the evidence fished out over the weekend had suggested: that the recovered bodies and belongings had indeed come from the missing Airbus 330 aircraft. “That is no longer in doubt,” said Lt. Col. Henry Munhoz of the Brazilian Navy.

Such finality was little consolation to the village of Ermenonville, France, population 913, which lost three members of its town council when the flight disappeared.

A quaint town with a medieval castle, Ermenonville is a short commute from the Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris and is nicknamed Air France Village because of the number of residents who work for the airline. One of them, Anne Grimout, 49, was the head of Flight 447’s cabin crew and had worked for Air France for nearly 25 years.

She had persuaded the other two council members to join her on a long weekend trip to Brazil: Marie-Josée Treillou, 70, a mother and grandmother, and Nathalie Marroig, 41, who had children in the local schools and worked at Poclain Hydraulics in a nearby town.

Relatives at the homes of all three women declined to be interviewed. “It’s just not possible,” a woman who answered the telephone at Ms. Marroig’s home said.

The town, now holding its annual theater festival, has turned a celebration planned for Monday into a memorial for the three women.

Alain Prétemend, the mayor, sounded stunned by the news of the crash. “You cannot expect things like that,” he told the local newspaper, Le Courrier Picard. “It weighs on us.”

On Sunday, Dominique Bussereau, the French secretary of state for transportation, told RTL radio that the authorities were focusing on a transmission from the plane, during the last minutes of flight, indicating that airspeed readings on its onboard systems were inconsistent.

“The series of readings represent the only real element for investigators at this moment,” he said. In particular, they were reviewing the performance of a Pitot tube, part of the speed measurement system.

“There have been situations on Airbus planes, and perhaps on others, where these tubes no longer indicated the airspeed because it entered a humid area, a low-pressure area, an area of turbulence,” he added. If the Flight 447 pilots could not read the correct speed, the plane could have been flying too slowly or too fast, with deadly results.

French investigators announced Saturday that the plane had been scheduled to have its Pitot tube replaced, but it remained unclear whether the part had malfunctioned or had anything to do with the crash.

The answer to that question and others may be lying somewhere on the ocean floor just north of the Equator, documented clearly and plainly in the flight data and cockpit voice recorders known as black boxes.

Despite the best efforts of a search team that on Sunday comprised five Brazilian ships, a French frigate and submarine, 12 Brazilian planes and two French ones, the answer could remain there.

The ocean floor there is a tangle of mountains towering two miles above ocean valleys. The batteries on the “pingers,” little electronic noisemakers stuck to the sides of the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, will start to wear down in about three weeks, and slowly fade to silence.

Electronic evidence from this crash may be superior to any physical evidence now being recovered. The possible culprit, the Pitot tube, sometimes fails because the heaters that keep Pitot tubes ice-free do not work. If that happened in this case, the ice would be long gone. But the faulty readings in the memory chips of the flight data recorder would remain.

Without the boxes, said James T. Francis, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, the Air France case will be “a tough, tough cookie.”

What the electronics do not always do is lead searchers to the wreckage, he pointed out. Steve Fossett, the balloonist, sailor and aviator, disappeared in his small plane in September 2007, and the wreckage was found by a hiker in California 13 months later.

Such serendipity is unlikely for Air France Flight 447. “There ain’t going to be anybody wandering around camping at the bottom of the ocean,” Mr. Francis said.

Every crash is a mystery, but “it seems to intensify when it is in the water,” said James Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “All of us, I think, have a fear of not being found.”

But for the families and friends of those aboard Flight 447, each piece of debris represents an irrefutable and tragic fact, while mystery offers the comfort of the unknown.

“I had hope,” said Antonella Pareschi, 33, a violinist from Rio de Janeiro whose partner, the conductor and composer Silvio Barbato, was on the plane. “But when they found the bodies, I realized that the percentage chance of finding them alive dropped. You know, you have images they are on an island or something, but when bodies and belongings appear you stop believing like you once did and you start to see the harsh reality.”

Ms. Pareschi said she had heard nothing conclusive from Brazilian authorities, and that was fine with her.

“No news is good news in one way,” she said. “As long as his body doesn’t appear, I am always going to have hope. It might be crazy, but that’s the way I see it.”

Andrew Downie reported from São Paulo, Brazil, and Matthew L. Wald from New York. Nicola Clark and Doreen Carvajal contributed reporting from Paris.

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