RECIFE, Brazil – Brazilian authorities started to identify bodies recovered from a downed Air France jet on Thursday, and the names of victims found 85 kilometres apart in the ocean could help prove whether the jet broke up in the air.
A French ship also reported sighting more bodies, but there was no immediate information on how many were spotted or when they might be picked up, said Brazilian air force. Gen. Ramon Cardoso.
Rainstorms hit parts of the search area and bodies and debris were dispersed by currents, and Cardoso said Brazil’s aerial search was hindered by reduced visibility.
“It is becoming more and more difficult to find and recover bodies,” he said 11 days after the May 31 crash hundreds of kilometres off Brazil’s coast. “And the chances of recovering the bodies of all the passengers of the Air France flight are very remote.”
Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said the evidence uncovered so far points to at least a partial midair break up of the Airbus A330 and that the 41 bodies found are among the best evidence investigators now have.
Coroners in the northeastern coastal city of Recife began examining 16 bodies on Thursday, hoping to identify through DNA and photos. The rest of the bodies are to be flown in Friday from the Brazilian islands of Fernando de Noronha, where they are being taken after being loaded onto search ships.
Flight 447 was packed with 228 people and because of that, passengers were likely in their assigned seats as the jet flew into heavy storms, Goelz said.
“If the victims found in one part of the ocean mostly came from one part of the plane, and the victims in the other area came from another part of the plane, that is really telling you something,” he said – perhaps what parts of the plane had broken up in the air.
Identification of injuries suffered by passengers also will help investigators.
Goelz noted that the pattern of injuries found on passengers of TWA Flight 800 – which went down in 1996 off the coast of Long Island, New York – helped investigators confirm that the nose broke off and fire blew back from the fuel tank.
“We will know much more, I think, after the autopsies allow us to better understand the technical causes of death and when the debris have been examined by experts,” Air France chief executive Pierre-Henri Gourgeon told reporters on Thursday.
Goelz said that damage to the larger pieces of debris fished from the ocean can tell experts where the pieces of the plane broke apart and perhaps why – by forces in air or by impact with the sea.
A Brazilian ship unloaded 37 pieces of the plane Thursday for storage at an air force base in the northern port city of Natal until French investigators arrive and decide where they should be sent, said Brazilian Vice Admiral Edison Lawrence.
Other pieces are still aboard the ships searching for human remains and debris, and Brazil’s military will decide next week whether to halt the search for bodies on June 19.
The first bodies found Saturday six days after the crash were recovered about 85 kilometres from bodies discovered on Tuesday, Brazil’s military said.
Investigators will calculate how far currents averaging about eight km/h had carried the bodies before they were picked up, said John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“Finding those bodies that far away or that separate from the debris field is a very important clue, and could indicate a midair breakup or at least that the cabin was opened up,” he said.
Yet more information could come from the plane’s flight recorders. Sonar from the French nuclear submarine Emeraude are now ranging across 35 square kilometres of ocean bottom a day searching for them.
U.S. military locating equipment capable of picking up signals 6,100 metres deep will arrive at the scene within days.
Finding the boxes in the deep waters presents a formidable task; they might have come to rest amid jagged underwater mountains and their acoustic signals will start to fade in about three weeks.
If a box is located, the French can send the remote-controlled mini-sub Nautile to recover it. The Nautile had a key role in the search for the wreckage of the Titanic.
So far, investigators have focused on the possibility that external speed monitors – Pitot tubes – iced over and gave false readings to the plane’s computers. The plane emitted messages just before crashing that it was experiencing electrical failures and reduced cabin pressure.
Airbus said it sent an advisory to airlines June 8 analyzing the automatic messages transmitted by Flight 447.
One of the messages showed a change of cabin pressure equal to an altitude change of more than 550 REPLACED captured”meters” original”(?¼d+¼s )meters”>metres per minute, said Airbus spokesman Stefan Schaffrath. But he said Airbus does not have enough information to interpret this yet.
Replacement Pitot tubes for jet models of the same type as the crashed plane arrived just three days before the fatal accident, Gourgeon said.
Air France ordered the replacements on April 27 after pilots noted a loss of airspeed data in flights on Airbus A330 and A340 models, he said.
The incidents were “not catastrophic” and planes with the old Pitots are considered airworthy, Gourgeon said.
“Because I am not convinced that the sensors are the cause of the accident, and we have said it, I had no need to issue a press release the day after the accident,” Gourgeon added, responding to criticism that there was a lack of transparency.
French and U.S. officials have said there were no signs of terrorism, and Brazil’s defence minister said the possibility wasn’t considered. But France says it has not been ruled out.
The plane’s manufacturer, Airbus, encountered new problems Thursday when an A330 carrying 203 people made an emergency landing in Guam after an electrical problem sparked a small cockpit fire, Jetstar airline reported.
A pilot put out the fire with an extinguisher and no one was injured, said Jetstar spokesman Simon Westaway.
Marco Sibaja reported from Recife and Alan Clendenning reported from Sao Paulo. Associated Press writers Greg Keller and Emma Vadore in Paris, Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo and Bradley Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.