, RIO DE JANEIRO, June 2 – Brazil confirmed Tuesday that a five-kilometre swath of debris floating in the Atlantic marked the spot where an Air France flight carrying 228 people came down in mysterious circumstances.
Brazilian Defence Minister Nelson Jobim told reporters "there are no doubts" the items — including a seat, cables, plane components and jet fuel slicks — belonged to the Air France Airbus A330 that had been flying to Paris from Rio de Janeiro when it disappeared Monday.
The evidence extinguished any lingering hopes of finding survivors and confirmed the worst civil aviation accident since 2001, when an American Airlines jet crashed in New York killing all 260 people on board.
Jobim said Brazilian navy ships would start arriving at the debris zone nearly 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) off Brazil’s north-eastern coast to begin recovering the floating items.
Three merchant vessels, two Dutch-flagged and one French, were already at the scene, he said.
At the same time, the search for bodies would continue, the minister said.
If any were found they would be taken by ship to the nearest airport, on Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha archipelago 460 kilometres (285 miles) away, where they would be flown out on air force aircraft.
More than half of those travelling in the full plane were either French or Brazilian. The others came from 30 countries, mostly in Europe.
The 216 passengers included 126 men, 82 women, seven children and a baby. The crew comprised 11 French nationals and one Brazilian.
The French captain, whose name has yet to be released, was 58 and an Air France pilot since 1988 with a great deal of experience, the airline said.
The plane vanished Monday four hours into its 11-hour flight, as it was beyond the reach of radar midway over the Atlantic between South America and Africa, in an area known for its tropical storms.
The last communication from the aircraft were automatic data signals warning of multiple electric and pressurization failures on board. The pilot did not send any mayday distress calls.
Air France suggested the four-year-old plane could have been struck by lightning — a fairly common hazard that by itself should not knock out a modern airliner, but coupled with other problems such as violent turbulence it could be dangerous.
Other theories advanced by experts include pilot error, mechanical defects or even the remote possibility of terrorism.
"No hypothesis is being favoured at the moment," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday.
"Our only certainty is that there was no distress call sent by the plane, but regular automatic alerts sent over three minutes indicated the failure of all systems," he said.
Air France chief executive Pierre-Henry Gourgeon said Monday the succession of data messages was a "totally unprecedented situation" and that it was "probable" the plane crashed into the ocean shortly afterwards.
Given the enigma of what caused the plane to fall, finding its black boxes has become of paramount importance.
A French ship was on its way, carrying two mini-submarines capable of operating at depths of 6,000 meters (19,700 feet), which is also the limit aircraft black boxes can survive and roughly the depth of the Atlantic in the crash area.
But any recovery would be extremely tricky, not only because of the depth, but also because of powerful currents and storms in the zone.
"To find the plane, you’ll need ships equipped with a special sonar, and possibly also rescue submarines — it’s an enormous undertaking," Commander Ronaldo Jenkins, safety coordinator for Brazil’s airline association, told AFP.