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. French officials said one of the plane’s black boxes had been found, which could provide clues into the cause of the crash off the coast of 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 a gauze bandage on her elbow. Her hair was pulled back and she was covered by a blue blanket.
Her uncle, Joseph Yousouf, said Bahia had a fracture on her collarbone.
“It is a true miracle. She is a courageous young girl,” Alain Joyandet, France’s minister for international cooperation, said at the hospital. He said she 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.
Joyandet said the girl would be flown back to France on Wednesday night and put in a Paris hospital upon arrival.
“She is physically out of danger, she is evidently very traumatized,” he said.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 Associated Press. For fear of upsetting Bahia, Yousouf has told her that her mother is in the room next door.
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 on board were French nationals.
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.
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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.
Most of the passengers were from the Comoros. Sixty-six on board were French nationals.
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.
French and American teams are carrying out the rescue operations. Abdul-Khaleq al-Qadi, chairman of Yemenia’s board, said the black boxes, once retrieved, will be taken to France for analysis.
Gen. Bruno de Bourdoncle de Saint-Salvy, head of French forces in the southern Indian Ocean, 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.
Rescue boats plied the waters north of the main island Wednesday and scores of people gathered on nearby beaches to watch.
“The search is continuing,” Joyandet said. “No other survivors have been found for the moment.”
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 joint staff.
Col. Dominique Fontaine, who is managing the rescue operations, said Wednesday that no other plane debris has been found so far.
A French 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 amid questions why passengers were put on another jet in the Yemeni capital of San’a.
Al-Qadi, chairman of Yemenia’s board, said the company 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.
The vice president of Comoros criticized French officials for not telling his nation about any suspected problems with the plane.
“We trust the civil aviation authorities of the countries we are working with,” Idi Nadhoim said Wednesday on France-24 television, suggesting that French authorities discriminated against people who fly in these planes _ French citizens from former French colonies.