Traces of aircraft wreckage were discovered in the south Atlantic yesterday close to the last known position of the lost French Airbus, 400 miles north-east of Brazil. A seat, an orange buoy and white flotsam were among the debris spotted by a Brazilian search plane.
The location suggests that the pilot may have attempted to return to Brazil before crashing. Otherwise, the fate of Air France flight AF447 and its 228 passengers and crew, bound from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on Sunday night, remained an almost complete mystery yesterday.
Last night Brazil's Defence Minister, Nelson Jobim, said that the three-mile trail of wreckage spotted by military aircraft "confirms that the plane went down in that area". He would not describe in detail the items from the Airbus 330-200 discovered hundreds of miles from the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha but his confirmation came hours after it was reported that a buoy, seat and signs of fuel had been spotted.
Despite the discovery the reasons for the catastrophe may remain unknown for weeks or months.
A Brazilian Air Force colonel, Jorge Amaral, told a press conference earlier: "The plan now is to focus our efforts to collect the debris and try to identify if they belong or not to the Air France plane ... [We] need to have at least one piece with a serial number."
The location of the debris, to the south of the presumed flight path, suggests that the plane "veered to the right", he said. "It is possible that they realised that there was a problem and tried to return [towards Brazil]."
The Air France theory that the aircraft could have been destroyed by a lightning strike was challenged by aviation experts yesterday. They suggested that a strong, ultra-modern aircraft, four years old, could not have vanished without issuing mayday calls unless stricken by a combination of system failures and exceptionally bad weather.
A terrorist attack has not been completely ruled out. "All scenarios have to be envisaged," the French Defence Minister, Herve Morin, told French radio. "We can't rule out a terrorist act since terrorism is the main threat to Western democracies, but at this time we don't have any element whatsoever indicating that such an act could have caused this accident."
Officials said that it was crucial to locate the black boxes, or flight recorders, which are programmed to emit signals for up to 30 days.
The aircraft, carrying 228 people, including five Britons, last made radio contact over the south Atlantic 350 miles north-east of the Brazilian coast. It was then entering a zone of extreme weather, known as the "black pot", generated by collisions between warm, moist air streams from north and south of the Equator.
Normally an aircraft would receive advance radar warning and steer around, or over, any severe storms in this zone. Aviation experts speculated yesterday that the radar and radio systems on the Airbus could have been damaged by a lightning strike and the aircraft may have accidentally blundered into an area of destructively high turbulence.
"If you are caught up in a large storm cloud, you have to fight to save the aircraft," said Gérard Feldzer, a former pilot from France. "Anything can happen ... The plane can turn on its back and go into a spin."
No mayday message was sent out. The three emergency beacons, intended to mark the position of a crashed aircraft, failed to function. "It would be very unusual to have all the communications systems fail at once," said David Gleave, of Aviation Safety Investigations in Britain. "That would tend to indicate that something catastrophic happened."
A French military spokesman, Christophe Prazuck, warned that, even if located, the bulk of the aircraft's wreckage may be difficult, or even impossible, to reach. "The search area covers an underwater mountain range, 15,000 feet deep, as big as the Andes," said M. Prazuck. "The underwater landscape is very steep."
The French Transport Minister, Dominique Bussereau, said that grieving relatives should prepare themselves for a "a very long investigation ... It could be several days, several weeks, or several months".
The aircraft carried 216 passengers and 12 crew members of 32 nationalities, including 72 French people, 59 Brazilians, 26 Germans, nine Chinese, nine Italians and five Britons. The French passengers included a group of 19 work colleagues and relatives, who had won a trip to Brazil because of their excellent sales figures for CGED, an electrical goods distributor. Among the Britons believed lost aboard the Airbus is a ship's captain, Graham Gardner, 52, from Gourock, in Renfrewshire, who had been working alternative months in Brazil for an ocean pipe-laying firm. His wife, Joyce, 51, said: "He was such a loving, caring and laid-back man. Nothing fazed him ... Although we don't have children, he was very much a family man and loved playing with all the children in our extended family. He was just a big kid at heart."
Other presumed victims include three young Irish doctors, returning from a two-week holiday. They include Aisling Butler, 26, from Roscrea, Co Tipperary, whose father, John, said: "She was a truly wonderful, exciting girl. She never flunked an exam in her life – nailed every one of them – and took it all in her stride."
Relatives from all over Europe were flying into Paris yesterday to await news. The French parliament held a moment of silence to honour the victims and the country's football team were to wear black armbands for their friendly match with Nigeria.
President Nicolas Sarkozy promised that he would invite those relatives who wanted to take part to take a "flight of remembrance" over the crash scene, as soon as the location of the wreckage was confirmed.
On board: The passengers who perished
The 11-year-old schoolboy
Alexander Bjoroy, 11, a boarder at Clifton College in Bristol, was returning to the UK after visiting his family in Brazil for the half-term break.
The school's headmaster, John Milne, said: "Alexander joined the prep school in January 2009, and was a well liked and respected boarder who will be sorely missed by his fellow pupils and staff. Our deepest sympathies and condolences are with the family in Brazil at this time."
The college governor, Alison Streatfeild-James, who has four children at the school, said the boy's death was an "utter tragedy". She said: "It's a sombre mood at the school today. All the children were informed in assembly and prayers were said. It's a terrible piece of news to break. Children are intelligent, they understand what has happened. All we can do is offer them support in an appropriate way."
The oil workers
Also on the flight were Graham Gardner, 52, an oil industry worker from Renfrewshire in Scotland, and Arthur Coakley, 61, an engineer from Whitby in North Yorkshire.
Mr Gardner had worked in Brazil for four years and was recently made master of the Lochnagar, a specialist pipe-laying vessel operated by Subsea 7, an underwater construction company based in Aberdeen.
His wife Joyce, 51, said he was a "loving, caring and laid-back man". She added: "Graham was very supportive and always there for me when I needed him. Although we don't have children, he was very much a family man and loved playing with all the children in our extended family. He was just a big kid at heart."
Mr Coakley worked as a structural engineer for PDMS, an oil company also based in Aberdeen. He had been in Brazil helping with a survey on an oil rig. He was originally due back in the UK on 19 May but his company had asked him to stay on a bit longer.
Patricia, Mr Coakley's wife of 34 years, said he had been looking forward to his retirement, when the couple intended to buy a property in Corfu. He leaves behind two sons, Dominic, 31, and Patrick, 29, and a daughter, Mise, 25.
"They are distraught," Mrs Coakley said of her children. "They absolutely idolised and worshipped their father. He worked so hard for his family, that's all he wanted, to retire. It's not going to happen, is it? He's not going to come back."
Neil Warrior, 47, a PR executive for Mazda Europe, and an unnamed Welsh woman were also on the flight.
The Irish doctors
Flight 447 also claimed the lives of three Irish doctors, named locally as Eithne Walls, from Belfast, Jane Deasy, from Dublin, and Aisling Butler, from Roscrea in Co Tipperary.
The friends, who were in their 20s, were heading home after a two-week holiday in Brazil, where they had been part of a reunion of a larger group of fellow graduates from Trinity College Medical School. The unnamed Welsh woman was part of the same group.
Before deciding to become a doctor, Ms Walls forged a successful career as a dancer, appearing in Riverdance and spending a year on Broadway in 2000.
A family friend said: "Eithne was a beautiful and intelligent young girl who seemed destined to achieve great things in everything she did."
Ms Butler's father, John, said he initially thought his daughter's flight was due in the following day but when he opened an email containing her travel itinerary, "a nightmare opened up as well". He said: "We know Aisling is gone, we are sure of that. She was a truly wonderful, exciting girl. I just can't describe how we feel. It is just about trying to live now."
Last night, it was reported that two more Irish passengers had been on the plane, but their identities remained unknown.
The Brazilian 'prince'
One of the 58 Brazilians on board the aircraft was Prince Pedro Luis de Orleans e Braganza, 26, a direct descendant of Dom Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil.
Although Dom Pedro was overthrown in 1889 by a military coup – and the country became a republic two years later – Prince Pedro would have been fourth in line to inherit the Brazilian throne if the monarchy still existed.
Antonio Gueiros, an information systems director with the French tyremaker Michelin, and Lucas Gagliano, 23, one of the flight attendants on the aircraft, were among the other Brazilians named.
The family who were scared of flying
Among the three Swedish victims of the disaster were 34-year-old Christine Badre Schnabl and her five-year-old son, Philipe.
Mrs Schnabl had purposely travelled on a separate flight to her husband and their three-year-old daughter, due to the couple's shared fear of air crashes.
Mr Schnabl and their daughter caught an earlier flight and landed safely in Paris, where they were informed that the second plane – which had taken off only a few hours later – was missing.
The family had been living in Rio de Janeiro for 10 years and was returning to Sweden for a holiday. Mrs Schnabl's mother, Annika Badre, said: "It's impossible to comprehend that they are gone. It's awful."
... and a lucky escape
A French couple who begged Air France officials to let them fly home on the fateful plane were turned away because it was full.
Amina and Claude Jaffiol were desperate to get back to France and even tried calling their contacts in the French embassy in Brazil in an attempt to persuade the airline to let them fly.
Mrs Jaffiol, 47, said: "We were trying everything we could to get on board that plane because we needed to get back to France for work. But despite all our efforts, and even getting friends at the embassy to help, Air France refused to let us. Now we feel both very lucky and horrified at how close we came to death."