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Families split over retrieval of Air France bodies

05 May 2011

The Times
05 May 2011

On the flat sandy floor of the deep Atlantic a submarine robot is about to begin lifting the remains of passengers and crew who died when an Air France jet crashed off Brazil two years ago.

The families of the victims, however, have contrasting feelings on the epilogue to the story of Flight 447; a disaster that has raised allegations of cover-ups as well as questions about the mix of high technology and human skills that govern airliners in the 21st century.

The bodies of 50 of the 228 people who died were found on the surface immediately after the crash of the Airbus A330 in June 2009.

Five Britons were on board the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris that vanished at night after flying through a storm.

The skeletal remains of dozens of others were found last month, still strapped to their seats, almost two and a half miles under the waves. Two of the three pilots were among them.

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After $38 million was spent over 18 months searching the wrong area, the wreck was found by the team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts, which found the Titanic in 1985.

The operation to recover the bodies is upsetting some families. "I wanted Caroline to rest in peace on the bottom of the ocean," said Corinne Coquet, whose 24-year-old daughter died with her son-in-law, a steward. "Now they are going to sully this rest."

Robert Soulas, whose daughter and her husband were killed, agreed. "I was not favourable," he told The Times. "The idea that they are manipulating these bodies tied to their seats ... The ocean is their tomb, their destiny took them there."

However, others welcomed the development as a possible closure to their mourning.

In Brazil, Nelson Marinho, president of the local family support group, said that the effort was encouraging. "We will at last be able to bury them. We are going to reach a conclusion about what happened."

Jean-Baptiste Audoussey, 31, who lost his partner and is head of an association of Flight 447 families, had mixed feelings. "I would have preferred that they hadn't told us that there were bodies," he said.

The Bureau of Investigation and Analysis (BEA), the air accident investigator, is ready to start unloading data from the flight recorders, which were recovered earlier this week and are to be brought to Paris.

Officials are optimistic that, despite spending two years in seawater under tonnes of pressure, the black boxes will give essential information on the chain of events that doomed the Airbus.

Huge stakes hang on the outcome, with Air France and Airbus facing charges of manslaughter in a separate judicial inquiry and the design of the Airbus family of highly automated jets under question.

The basic facts have long been understood, because the airliner transmitted data automatically to Paris in its final minutes. While crossing the storm its speed sensors, or pitot tubes, iced up.

Faulty data caused the automatic flight system to trip. The two pilots then failed to prevent the aircraft entering an uncontrollable dive, probably caused by an aerodynamic stall.

The BEA has said so far that the pitot failure was a factor, but not the sole cause of the crash.

Pilots and Air France accused Airbus of failing to remedy what it knew were unreliable sensors. Others blame the pilots for losing a still manageable airliner. Critics, including lawyers for one victim's family, accused the BEA of deliberately slowing the investigation.

James Healy-Pratt, of Stewarts Law in London, who represents a group of victims' families, said that he expects the investigation to confirm the results of simulations that his firm arranged.

"Entry into bad weather, pitot and computer malfunction and poor pilot response," he told The Times.

"Each link was of course entirely preventable. France and President Sarkozy now need to prove they are not partisan to French commercial interest."

The insurers of Air France face a huge bill, with compensation estimated at about $415m. The airline has settled with about 160 families but litigation is pending from many others.

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