New Clues Emerge in Wreckage of Air France Flight

FERNANDO DE NORONHA ~ The hunt for the wreck of an Air France jet that plunged into the ocean with 228 on board intensified on Thursday after new clues appeared to rule out a mid-air fire or explosion.

As navy ships trawled the crash site in the Atlantic, Brazil’s defence minister said a fuel slick had been found under the planned route of the Rio to Paris flight, which went down on Monday killing everyone on board.

Defense Minister Nelson Jobim said late on Wednesday that the 20-kilometer-long kerosene trail “means that it is improbable that there was a fire or explosion” because the high-octane jet fuel would have ignited.

But he admitted this was “just a hypothesis” and stressed that the mystery of Air France flight AF 477 was far from being solved, four days after it flew into a ferocious thunder storm midway between South America and Africa.

Answers may lie in the plane’s black box data and cockpit voice recorders, but they are likely resting on the rugged sea bottom, at least 3,000 meters under waters that are still haunted by fierce storms.

It would be extremely difficult – maybe impossible – to recover them even if the 200-kilometer-wide search area were narrowed down, experts said.

“It’s equivalent to looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Pierre Cochonat, of the French marine research institute Ifremer.

Two Brazilian navy vessels, a patrol boat and a corvette, were in the area, 1,000 kilometres off Brazil’s northeast coast, officials said.

An air force plane has found more and bigger debris from the flight some distance from where other items were spotted.

By nightfall late on Wednesday, though, they had not sighted or recovered any of the items spotted by air force aircraft, which included a plane seat, a life vest, cables, a chunk of fuselage and other plane components.

No bodies have yet been spotted.

Three other Brazilian vessels, including a tanker able to keep the flotilla in the area for weeks, and a French ship with mini-submarines were to arrive in the coming days.

Some of the relatives of those on board the Air France Airbus A330 told media they still held out hope their loved ones might have survived, but many others were resigned.

A memorial service was to be held for the 216 passengers and 12 crew in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner attending.

On Wednesday, a similar ceremony was conducted in Notre Dame cathedral with relatives and French President Nicolas Sarkozy hearing a message of condolence from Pope Benedict XVI read out to them.

France, which lost 72 nationals, the biggest group on the plane, is leading the probe into the disaster.

Two French investigators were already at work in Brazil, which lost 58 nationals. The other passengers came from 30 other countries.

When final confirmation comes that all those on board the Air France plane perished, it will become the worst disaster for the French airline in its 70-year history.

It would also be the worst civil aviation accident since 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus A300 crashed in New York killing all 260 people on board.

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