PARIS (AFP) — An Air France plane with 228 people on board disappeared over the Atlantic on Monday after suffering multiple breakdowns in a fierce storm on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
Spotter planes were dispatched in a bid to locate the jet in a vast area of ocean between Brazil and Africa, but officials said there was little hope of survivors from what appears to be the worst air accident in over a decade.
"The prospects of finding any survivors are very slim," a grim-faced French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after talking to stunned relatives of missing passengers. "It's a catastrophe the likes of which Air France has never seen."
Although the exact cause of the crash remained a mystery, Air France's chief executive said the Airbus A330 had sent a series of error messages shortly after crossing an area of major turbulence.
"A succession of a dozen technical messages" sent by the aircraft around 0215 GMT showed that "several electrical systems had broken down" which caused a "totally unprecedented situation in the plane," said Pierre-Henry Gourgeon.
"It is probable that it was shortly after these messages that the impact in the Atlantic came," he told reporters at Charles de Gaulle airport, where the flight was meant to have landed on Monday morning.
Airline officials had earlier said the plane was probably hit by lightning, but Gourgeon declined to make a direct link between weather conditions and the error messages.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he held out hope for survivors, but added that earlier he had spoken with French President Nicolas Sarkozy by telephone "and really it was an exchange of condolences."
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso sent a message of solidarity to both presidents, and expressed his "deepest sympathies" to the loved ones of those on board.
If it is confirmed that all 228 people on Flight AF 447 are dead, it would mark the worst loss of life in Air France's history and civil aviation's worst accident for more than a decade.
The Brazilian, Spanish and French air forces sent out search planes to scour a vast area of ocean between Brazil and Africa. Paris also asked Washington to use its spy satellites and listening posts to help.
At Charles de Gaulle airport, tearful relatives were ushered into a private area to await developments and get counselling from a team of psychologists.
At Rio's Tom Jobim International Airport stunned relatives were shown into a closed lounge, away from the news media and into the care of psychologists and doctors.
One woman, Vasti Ester van Sluijs, told AFP she had jumped into a taxi as soon as she heard the overnight Air France flight had disappeared.
"My daughter Adriana Francesca was on the plane," she said.
Air France said the 216 passengers included 126 men, 82 women, seven children and a baby. There were 12 French crew members.
The passengers hailed from 32 countries, including 61 from France, 58 from Brazil and 26 from Germany.
French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, whose portfolio includes transport, said hijacking had been ruled out.
Airbus said the A330 has a good safety record, with no fatalities ever on a commercial flight. One did crash in 1994 during a test flight in southern France, however, killing seven people on board.
Last week Air France announced its first net loss since it merged with Dutch airline KLM in 2003 to create Europe's biggest airline.
In July 2000 all 109 passengers and crew plus four people on the ground were killed when a supersonic Air France Concorde crashed during takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport. All Concordes were eventually taken out of service.
On August 3, 2005, an Air France A340 with 309 on board skidded off the runway after landing in a thunderstorm at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Fourteen people suffered minor injuries.
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