The only recognisable part of Afriqiyah Airways flight 8U771 that remained were a few smashed seats and its brightly painted tailfin.
Shortly after 6am yesterday, the state-of-the-art Airbus A330 operated by the Libyan carrier plunged calamitously from the skies as it made its final approach to Tripoli airport. Such was the violence of the impact on the jet as it hit the ground in the last moments of its five-hour journey from Johannesburg to the Libyan capital, that its airframe disintegrated into myriad pieces some 1,000 metres short of the runway, strewing the belongings of its passengers over a wide area of desert. The pilot seemingly did not even have time to issue a mayday call.
Yet when rescuers reached the smouldering wreckage of the plane that had been carrying 104 people, including a large contingent of European tourists, they were rewarded with a miracle.
In the dawn light, rescuers found alive a Dutch child, aged between eight and 10, who had unaccountably survived a catastrophe that had instantly killed the remaining 92 passengers and 11-strong Libyan crew. The child was last night in a serious but stable condition in a Tripoli hospital after undergoing surgery on injuries including two broken legs, as Dutch diplomats sought to establish his or her identity. There were conflicting reports as to whether the child was a girl or a boy.
A Libyan doctor said: "It's an absolute miracle. It is not a crash in which there could be a hope of survivors."
The child, who according to one report was travelling with his or her parents and a sibling, was a client of one of two Dutch travel companies whose customers were returning from a package tour to South Africa on board the budget airline. A total of 61 Dutch citizens perished. The Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, said: "This is a large group of Dutch nationals after all, so it's a deeply sad message we have this day."
The UK Foreign Office confirmed that at least one Briton was on board. A total of 22 Libyans were also on the flight along with citizens from Germany, Finland, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, South Africa and France.
friqiyah, a budget airline set up eight years ago, operates a network of routes across Africa and into Europe. It uses Tripoli as a hub for passengers in transit for onwards flights to London Gatwick, Brussels, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Dusseldorf.
Passengers on board flight 8U912, the connecting flight to Gatwick from Tripoli, which was due to use a different aircraft to the inbound flight from Johannesburg, spoke of their shock.
John Davies, 46, an oil industry consultant returning from a business trip, said: "We didn't know anything about what was happening. All we knew was that the London flight had been delayed. When we saw the footage on television there was visible shock on people's faces. The flight was extremely quiet – we were just grateful to get home alive."
Television footage of the crash scene showed search teams sifting through the wreckage as investigators, including a French team of Airbus technical experts, began the process of working out why the plane, which was carrying less than half its full load of 253 passengers, hit the ground at enormous speed up to a kilometre from the airport's main east-west runway. A Libyan security official said: "It exploded on landing and totally disintegrated."
The "black box" flight recorders were recovered from the remains of the plane, which had been delivered to Afriqiyah last September as part of an order of more than 20 brand new Airbus planes. It had made just 420 journeys.
Aviation experts said investigators would consider whether the absence at Tripoli airport of an Instrument Landing System (ILS) – a piece of equipment widely used at international airports to guide aircraft to runways – had played a role in the crash.
One industry source told The Independent: "The ILS is a vital piece of equipment because it tells the incoming aircraft the speed and direction of its descent. Without it, the pilot has a much harder job. Visibility at the time of the crash was not brilliant, but not awful. There is always the question of technical failure, but this was a very new and advanced aircraft."
A spokesman for Afriqiyah said: "We extend our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of the victims."Reuse content