Teen Survivor Clung To Jet Wreckage For Hours

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A bruised teenage girl who is the only known survivor of a Yemeni jet crash clung to wreckage for more than 13 hours before rescuers found her floating in the Indian Ocean, a French official said Wednesday.

There was no word on any other survivors. French officials said one of the plane's black boxes had been found, which could provide clues into the cause of Tuesday's crash off the coast of this former French colony. The Yemenia Airbus 310 jet was carrying 153 people to island nation of Comoros when it crashed into the sea early Tuesday as it attempted to land in the dark amid howling winds.

Bahia Bakari, 14, was 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.

"It is a true miracle. She is a courageous young girl," Alain Joyandet, France's minister for international cooperation, said at the hospital. "She held onto a piece of the plane from 1:30 a.m to 3 p.m." He said she was strong enough to signal 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'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 she 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 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, a former French colony. Sixty-six on board were French nationals.

Turbulence was believed to be a factor in the crash, Yemen's embassy in Washington said.

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 south of Yemen, between Africa's southeastern coast and the island of Madagascar.

Gen. Bruno de Bourdoncle de Saint-Salvy, the senior commander for French forces in the southern Indian Ocean, said the Airbus 310 crashed in deep water nine miles north of the Comoran coast and 21 miles from the Moroni airport.

"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 north of Grand Comoros Island on Wednesday, 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, spokesperson for the French military joint staff.

Col. Dominique Fontaine, who is managing the rescue operations, said Wednesday that no other debris has been found so far.

A French tug arrived from the French island of Mayotte to recover survivors, corpses and debris, while a French frigate diverted from anti-piracy operations, the Nivose, and another French 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.

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.

This program aired on July 1, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.