MORONI (AFP) – A 14-year-old girl was rescued alive in the sea amid debris and dead bodies after a Yemeni Airbus jet crashed in the Indian Ocean as it tried to land in the Comoros islands with 153 people aboard.
The A310 had aborted a landing and was making a second attempt when it crashed, officials said, as French authorities questioned the carrier’s safety record saying the 19-year-old jet had been banned from France’s airspace.
Bodies and wreckage from the Yemenia airline flight were spotted in the sea near the archipelago’s capital, Moroni, aviation officials said. A Yemeni official reported an oil slick in the waters.
One of the black box flight recorders has been located and efforts to retrieve it will begin Wednesday, the French government said.
“The black box’s signal was located yesterday (Tuesday) at 4:30 pm local time (1230 GMT) by an aerial patrol, 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Grande Comore,” said Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet, quoted by a spokeswoman.
A French boat was to arrive on site later Wednesday to start operations to recover the flight recorder, he added.
The teenager, the sole survivor so far among the 142 passengers and 11 crew on Flight IY 626, was in hospital and her condition was “not worrisome,” said Ramulati Ben Ali from the local Red Cross.
A man identified as one of the girl’s rescuers told France’s Europe 1 radio that the girl was seen swimming in choppy waters in the middle of bodies and plane debris around 4:00 am (0100 GMT).
“We tried to throw a life buoy. She could not grab it. I had to jump in the water to get her,” the rescuer said.
“She was shaking, shaking. We put four covers on her. We gave her hot, sugary water. We simply asked her name, village.”
A Comoran government spokesman also confirmed that the girl is the only survivor so far and hailed from the southeastern village of Nioumadzaha.
“She is conscious, she is speaking…. but we are not asking her too many question as not to tire her,” said Ada Mansour, the doctor who treated the girl at the hospital, where she was in the intensive care unit.
The girl lives in the French southern city of Marseille and was travelling with her mother to the Comoros, according to a Comoran community group in France.
Abdallah Ibrahim, the Marseille coordinator of the Comoros Solidarity Union, said that airport authorities in Moroni identified the girl as Bakari Baya.
Officials said the plane crashed into rough seas in darkness, after disappearing from control tower radar screens at 1:51 am Tuesday (2251 GMT Monday).
“They are saying the plane was making its approach, that it pulled out of the approach and then tried another approach that went wrong,” French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau told French radio.
Bussereau said French inspectors had in 2007 found numerous faults on the plane and that the airline, founded in 1961, was being closely monitored by EU authorities.
“The plane had not since then reappeared in our country,” he told i-tele news.
The flight left Paris on Monday for Marseille and Sanaa aboard a modern Airbus A330, where passengers switched to the older Airbus jet to continue to Djibouti and Moroni.
According to an EU legal document, other inspections in Germany and Italy had shown up “deficiencies” with the airline, and in July last year the EU commission had insisted Yemenia provide an “action plan” to address safety concerns.
Yemen’s Transport Minister Khaled al-Wazir told AFP the plane was technically sound and had “been overhauled in May 2009 and regularly flew to Europe.
French civil aviation officials said there were 66 French nationals on board, though many of passengers were likely to hold dual nationality. Three small babies were also among the passengers, officials said.
France sent two navy ships and a plane from its nearby Indian Ocean territories to help the rescue effort and Madagascar said it was sending a vessel as well.
Comorans in the southern French city of Marseille, home to more Comorans than the tiny Indian Ocean state’s capital, said the tragedy was waiting to happen.
“We had been sounding the alarm bells, both here and in the Comoros,” said Moegni Toahiry, 39, as he stood outside his country’s consulate hoping for news of his cousin and three children who were on the flight.
A campaign group called “SOS voyage aux Comores” (SOS Comoros Travel) called on French authorities to act to stop a repeat of the crash.
“Flights between Sanaa and Moroni are carried out by cowboy operators,” spokesman Farid Soilihi told AFP. “They treat people like cattle, they pile them in, they don’t respect timetables, there are always technical problems.”
Airbus, which is still reeling from the crash of an Air France A330 into the Atlantic on June 1 with 228 people on board, immediately set up a crisis cell and sent investigators to the Comoros.