Families of air crash victims grieve together at Notre Dame

Sarkozy joins relatives at service as submarines head to deep-water wreckage site

more than 200 relatives of victims of the Atlantic Airbus disaster attended a sombre memorial service in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris yesterday.

Groups of relatives, dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs, placed and lit 228 candles around the cathedral's altar – one for each missing passenger and crew member.

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the head of the Catholic Church in France, read a message of "deep condolences" from Pope Benedict XVI and recited a passage from Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the aviation pioneer who was himself lost at sea. The cardinal said that the 228 candles were a "luminous reminder of the presence, despite the absence" of the missing loved ones.

The mourners, including scores of Air France staff in uniform, were joined by President Nicolas Sarkozy, his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the former president Jacques Chirac, senior French political figures and leaders of other major faiths.

Six British passengers, including 11-year-old Alexander Bjoroy are among the dead. Aviation experts are still struggling to explain how a modern air liner equipped with several back-up electrical, radio and radar systems could have plunged into the sea without even a mayday call from its crew.

Although more large pieces of wreckage were discovered in the Atlantic yesterday, 650 kilometres north-east of Brazil, it is feared that the main structure of the Airbus 330-200, and its three "black box" flight recorders, may have plunged at least 10,000 feet to a rugged ocean bed.

Paul Louis Arslanian, the head of the French air accident investigation agency, told a press conference at Le Bourget airport: "I am not totally optimistic. We cannot rule out that we will not find the flight recorders."

A French naval vessel carrying remotely controlled submarines is expected to reach the crash site by Monday. The French Environment and Transport Minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said the flight recorders were believed to be at a depth of 10,000 to 12,000 feet, within reach of the submarines. "But we have never recovered black boxes that deep before and... the sea currents are powerful that far down," M. Arslanian said.

"It is practically in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where the floor is very deep and varied. It is a mountainous seascape rather than a plane."

It emerged yesterday that a false bomb warning had been made last week against another Air France flight from South America – a flight from Buenos Aires to Paris on 27 May.

Officials dismissed this as a coincidence. They said that scores of fake bomb threats were received by airlines every week. French officials say that the possibility that Flight AF447 was destroyed by a bomb has not been completely ruled out but that intelligence services had no information to indicate that the crash was the result of a terrorist attack.

French and Brazilian investigators are working on the theory that the aircraft was crippled by lightning, turbulence or ice after flying into a severe, tropical storm.

The internet is buzzing with other rumours that the airliner may have been struck by a military plane or a drug-smuggling aircraft.

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