Rescuers were last night hailing the “miracle survival” of a single child after a passenger jet crashed into the sea off the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. With the remaining 152 passengers and crew aboard Yemenia flight IY626 feared dead, it emerged that the aircraft had been the subject of an EU investigation two years ago.
Relatives were last night waiting for news in Paris, Marseille and Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, after officials said the airbus had plunged into the ocean short of its final destination on the island of Grand Comore.
The Yemenia flight’s complicated route had seen passengers collected on a different plane from Paris and Marseille before switching to the 19-year-old Airbus A310 in Sana’a to make the final leg of the journey to Comoros.
According to rescuers, the sole survivor was a young girl called Bahia, who was making a good recovery in hospital on the largest of the Comoros Islands. The girl, 14, who was said to have been travelling with her mother, was plucked from the sea near the crash site and then confirmed her identity to local officials. “She is well now,” said a spokesman. “She was able to talk to the authorities.”
Rescuers continued to comb the wreckage with help from the French navy last night, battling 40mph winds and high seas. Initial reports that a five-year-old boy had been rescued were later corrected as officials said no other survivors had been found.
Back in France, anger was mounting over allegations that authorities had known the aircraft was unsafe |to travel. Many of the missing passengers were French, or holders of dual French-Comoran passports, and EU officials admitted that they were considering blacklisting Yemenia Air over safety concerns.
Speaking from Marseille, home to around 80,000 Comoran immigrants, honorary consul Stephane Salord compared Yemenia’s planes to “flying cattle trucks”.
“This A310 is a plane that has posed problems for a long time. It is absolutely inadmissible that this airline Yemenia played with the lives of its passengers this way,” he said. “It is an absolute disgrace that we tolerate this kind of thing and I think the company’s responsibility is considerable.”
Much of the controversy centred on the practice by which passengers were taken out of European air space on planes that met stringent safety requirements before being switched to older planes to make their onward journey. In addition, there were particular concerns with the specific Airbus, which had clocked up more than 51,000 hours flying prior to the crash in the early hours of yesterday morning.
France’s Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said French aviation inspectors found a “number of faults” during a 2007 inspection of the plane. Meanwhile, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said it had suspended Yemenia’s permission to maintain EU-registered planes in February after the carrier failed a set of audit inspections.
However, the airline owned jointly by Yemen and Saudi Arabia was not on the EU’s airlines blacklist, set up two years ago. EU Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani defended the decision not to blacklist Yemenia saying it had passed the necessary tests.
“The airline wasn’t on the EU blacklist because it had passed the checks ... After today’s accident we shall be contacting the company and we should verify the blacklist,” he told a news conference in Brussels. “The European blacklist works pretty well in Europe,” he said, before proposing that a worldwide blacklist be set up.
Those reassurances were of little consolation to the scores of relatives
who yesterday gathered at Paris’ Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport and at Marseille Marignane airport to wait for news. “They put us aboard wrecks, they put us aboard coffins. That’s where they put us. It’s slaughter. It’s slaughter,” one relative in Paris told French TV.
Thoue Djoumbe, another Comoran in Paris, said she and other passengers had been complaining about flight conditions on the airline for years.
“It’s a lottery when you travel to Comoros,” she told Associated Press. “We’ve organised boycotts, we’ve told the Comoran community not to fly on Yemenia airways because they make a lot of money off of us and, meanwhile, the conditions on the planes are disastrous.”
On Grand Comore, the largest of the three Comoros Islands about 190 miles north-west of Madagascar, a crowd of relatives were said to be trying to force their way into the airport for news.
The Yemenia flight was the second Airbus to crash into the sea in as many months and the second air tragedy to strike France after Air France Airbus A330-200 flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic on 31 May, killing all 228 people on board.
Yemeni civil aviation deputy chief Mohammed Abdul Qader said it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash as the flight recorder had not been recovered.