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More wreckage spotted at presumed Air France crash site

A large piece of debris seen floating in the Atlantic may be part of Flight 447's fuselage, a Brazilian military spokesman says.

June 04, 2009|Chris Kraul and Devorah Lauter

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, AND PARIS — Brazilian authorities said military aircraft Wednesday located several more pieces of debris floating in the Atlantic near where an ill-fated Air France flight is thought to have crashed with 228 people aboard.

The debris detected by aircraft radar included a 23-foot section that officials said might be part of Flight 447, which disappeared late Sunday after flying through turbulence and sending out an automatic alert of an electrical failure.

No further communication from the cockpit of the Rio de Janeiro-to-Paris flight was received.

Hundreds of people attended a memorial service Wednesday at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for the 216 passengers and 12 crew members. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, were among those in attendance.

Brazilian television began broadcasting images of the debris and a 12-mile fuel slick taken by air force planes over the suspected crash area about 400 miles northeast of the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha.

On Tuesday, Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said debris previously sighted in the area almost certainly belonged to the doomed aircraft. None of the fragments has been recovered yet.

Three merchant ships, two Dutch and one French, have been in the vicinity since Tuesday. Three more Brazilian naval vessels were expected to arrive Wednesday.

"It could be a side, a piece of steel or any part of the fuselage or tail," said Brazilian air force Col. Jorge Amaral, a military spokesman, of the fragments detected Wednesday. "A 23-foot piece, seemingly metallic, is a considerable piece."

Brazilian officials also said the debris was spotted within three miles of the fuel slick. Still, there have been no markings seen identifying the debris as belonging to the Air France jetliner. No bodies have been sighted, he said.

The Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper quoted Jobim as telling reporters Wednesday that the fuel slick meant it was doubtful that the airplane exploded in midair. But he offered no hypothesis about what might have caused the airplane to crash into the Atlantic.

A U.S. military P-3C Orion surveillance plane, which can fly lengthy missions and is equipped with radar and sonar to track submarines, is in Brazil to support the search.

"We have two crews to fly 24 hours," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Thomas Geiser, a liaison officer with the U.S. Embassy in Brazil. "We don't have a planned date for return, so we'll stay as long as needed."

Brazilian officials said the cause of the apparent crash was still a mystery.

"Since no one knows the origin, we're searching for clues. We still hope to find survivors," Brazilian navy spokesman Savio Nogueira said in an interview with Globo News.

Jobim, the defense minister, had a frank talk with families of passengers in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday. Parts of what was said at the closed-door meeting were leaked to reporters.

Folha de Sao Paulo reported that Jobim told families that bodies that had been mutilated might never be recovered, and any that remained in one piece probably would surface near the debris.

At the memorial service in Paris, a stream of white airport buses carrying friends and family of victims pulled up before Notre Dame's arched entrance. Hundreds of onlookers stood in silence behind barriers as men and women placed flowers at the cathedral gate. Poems, prayers and a message from Pope Benedict XVI were read at the service by Muslim, Jewish and Christian representatives.

Because of lack of space in the cathedral, many friends and relatives of victims grieved alongside members of the public outside and listened to the ceremony broadcast over loudspeakers. One was Air France employee Sophie Gorins, who said she knew three people aboard the flight.

"I'm thinking now of their children who are left alone. The terrible luck," she said through tears and running blue eye shadow, as the sound of the cathedral organ filtered through Notre Dame square.

Among the Flight 447 victims being mourned was Marie-Josee Treillou, a city council member from the French village of Ermenonville. She was returning from a four-day trip to Brazil to celebrate her 70th birthday, said her daughter, Caroline.

Matthieu Dumazeau, an Air France pilot who flies a Boeing 747 from Paris to Rio de Janeiro about once a month, also came to pay his respects. He said he had never had a problem flying over the region of the Atlantic where Flight 447 is thought to have crashed, and was baffled as to how such a secure plane could have gone down.

"It is very strange, because there had to be a really long string of events to have caused this, and it went down so fast," he said. "That scares me."

At least two Americans were on board: Michael Harris, a geologist who worked in Rio for Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corp., and his wife, Ann.

France will take charge of the investigation, although authorities say the flight data recorder and voice recorder may never be recovered given the ocean depths in the region of 2 miles or more.

The BBC reported that the French submarine Nautile, which was used to explore the wreck of the Titanic, is headed to the site of the crash.

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Kraul and Lauter are special correspondents. Special correspondent Marcelo Soares in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

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