Teen survivor of Comoros crash bruised, conscious
Published: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 2:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 2:34 p.m.
MORONI, Comoros — Lying in a hospital bed with bruises and a fractured collarbone, the only known survivor of a Yemeni jetliner crash asked for little more than food, water — and a chance to see her mother.
But Bahia Bakari, a 14-year-old who clung to the wreckage of the plane for 13 hours before rescuers found her floating in the Indian Ocean, already was too traumatized to hear her mother was feared dead along with more than 150 others.
"I have told her her mother is in the next room," the girl's uncle, Joseph Yousouf, told The Associated Press outside a hospital in Comoros, a former French colony where the plane was due to land before slamming into the ocean amid howling winds early Tuesday. He said the girl was speaking well and asking for food.
"They were coming to Comoros for vacation," Yousouf said. "She was going to be staying with her grandmother."
Bahia was due to fly back to France on Wednesday night and enter a Paris hospital upon arrival. Two ambulances were seen leaving the hospital Wednesday night; the girl was believed to be on board.
Officials were still searching for the plane's black boxes, whose flight data and cockpit voice recorders could provide clues into the cause of the crash. On Wednesday, the French army detected one of the distress beacons from the debris of Yemenia Flight IY626, according to French Commander Bertrand Mortemard de Boisse.
There was no word on any other survivors from the Yemenia Airbus 310 jet, which was 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.
An Associated Press reporter saw Bahia in the operation and recuperation block of a Comoros hospital, where more than a dozen people — most of them government officials — crowded into her small single room. She was conscious with bruises on her face and gauze bandages on her right elbow and right foot. Her hair was pulled back and she was covered by a blue blanket but she shook the hand of Alain Joyandet, France's minister for international cooperation.
"It is a true miracle. She is a courageous young girl," Joyandet said at the hospital. He said she held onto a piece of the plane from 1:30 a.m 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, adding: "She is physically out of danger, she is evidently very traumatized."
The girl's father told French radio that his daughter was "fragile" and could "barely swim" but managed to hang on.
Kassim Bakari said he spoke with his oldest daughter by phone. Bahia had left Paris on Monday night with her mother to see family in the Comoros.
He said the girl 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.
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.
Turbulence was believed to be a factor in the crash, Yemen's embassy in Washington said.
It was not immediately clear which section of the passenger cabin Bahia was sitting in. But if the plane flew into the water at speed, the impact damage to the fuselage would have been so violent and extensive that no part of the cabin would have been safer than any other section.
Traffic controllers in Moroni told Yemeni authorities that the aircraft never made a distress call and was about to land when it suddenly disappeared, said Yemeni civil aviation deputy chief Mohammed Abdul Qader.
The French air accident investigation agency BEA said it was sending a team of safety investigators accompanied by advisers from Airbus 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 sea is pretty rough at the present time, the wind is blowing hard and the drift is strong ... the bodies of the victims and the debris are drifting rapidly towards the north," said Christophe Prazuck, spokesman for the French military joint staff.
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.
"We can't accept that a plane is banned from Europe but still allowed to fly in Africa. It's the proof that our world isn't fair and that human beings don't weigh the same depending on which side of the Mediterranean they are," said Gilles Poux, mayor of the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, where Comorans gathered for prayers.
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.
He added that 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.
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