Specialists could start pulling up bodies and wreckage from an Air France plane found on the Atlantic Ocean floor within a month, after the stunning deep-water discovery raised new hope of determining the cause of the 2009 crash.
Investigators said Monday they still haven't found the plane's black box flight recorders, and it's unclear whether they remain attached to the fuselage, or whether they're even still intact after nearly two years in sandy depths of 3,900 metres.
All 228 people aboard the plane were killed when Flight 447, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, slammed into the ocean northeast of Brazil on June 1, 2009, after running into an intense high-altitude thunderstorm. The cause of the crash — the worst in Air France's history — remains unclear.
French officials said Monday that undersea robots have located bodies, motors and most of the Airbus jet in a fourth underwater search operation, after the last two search efforts turned up nothing. Investigators have said without the recorders, the cause of the crash may never be determined.
France's air accident investigation agency, the BEA, showed photos of the wreckage — intact wheels from the plane's landing gear, two engines dusted with silt, a panel of the fuselage with oval window openings.
The BEA did not show images of any bodies. French officials said identifiable bodies have been found and will be raised to the ocean surface, but would not say how many or comment further out of respect for the victims' families.
Fifty bodies were found during the first phase of the search, along with more than 600 pieces of the plane scattered on the sea. No bodies or debris have been found since, until now.
Victims' families, who had pushed for continued search efforts despite the high cost, cautiously welcomed the surprise announcement.
Hunt continues for recorders
BEA chief Jean-Paul Troadec told reporters Monday that he's confident that engineers can still read the data and recordings in the black boxes, if they weren't damaged in the crash.
The recorders should be in the rear of the fuselage, but it's possible they were ejected in the shock of the crash, he said. If the black boxes are located, they may not need to bring up the rest of the plane, because the reason for the search was to help shed light on the reasons for the crash, he said.
The retrieval operation will be funded by France's government, and will cost a few million euros, French officials said Monday. The government has opened up a tender for companies that could carry out the actual retrieval.
The recovery could begin in three weeks to a month, said Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, France's minister overseeing the environment and transport. She said "most" of the fuselage has been located.
Jean-Baptiste Audosset, who lost his partner in the crash, said the announcement offers "at last a bit of hope." He said, however, that families remain cautious after an earlier announcement that the plane's location had been determined turned out to be untrue.
"There are families who want the bodies raised, there are others who prefer that the remains stay in the depths," he said.
Finding the cause took on new importance last month when a French judge filed preliminary manslaughter charges against Air France and the plane's manufacturer, Airbus.
Air France and Airbus are financing the estimated $12.5 million cost of the new, fourth search effort that started last month, but the government will fund the retrieval effort. About $28 million has already been spent on the three previous searches for the jet's wreckage.
The team involved in this weekend's discovery was led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, or WHOI, based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
The search is being targeted in an area of about 10,000 square kilometres, several hundred kilometres off Brazil's northeastern coast.
Searchers are using up to three autonomous underwater search vehicles, each of which can stay underwater for up to 20 hours while using sonar to scan a mountainous area known as the Mid-Ocean Ridge. Researchers download the data, and a vehicle with a high resolution camera is sent to check out an area if scientists see evidence of debris.