SANA'A // Yemeni, Comoran and French officials are collaborating on the investigation into the crash of a Yemeni airliner into the Indian Ocean yesterday that killed up to 152 people. Foremost among their questions is whether the plane was safe to fly. Only one passenger, a 14-year-old girl, is known to have survived Flight IY 626, which crashed in the early hours of yesterday morning just 30km off the coast of the Comoros. Aboard were 153 people.
Arfachad Salim, a rescue co-ordinator for the Comoros Red Crescent, said the girl was brought ashore and added that local fishermen had also found wreckage, passengers' handbags and other effects. A man identified as one of the girl's rescuers told France's Europe 1 radio that the teenager was seen swimming in choppy waters in the middle of bodies and plane debris around four am. "We tried to throw a lifebuoy. She could not grab it. I had to jump in the water to get her," the rescuer said. "She was shaking, shaking. We put four covers on her. We gave her hot, sugary water. We simply asked her name, village."
The girl is now being treated in a hospital in the Comoros. "The bodies of three other people were also recovered," Mohammed Abdulqader, the vice chairman of the General Authority of Civil Aviation and Metrology, told reporters yesterday in Sana'a. Yemeni authorities have identified the nationalities of 93 passengers. "Twenty-six of the identified bodies were Comoran, 54 French, a Palestinian and a Canadian and an 11-member crew including six Yemenis, two Moroccans, an Indonesian, an Ethiopian and a Filipino," Mr Abdulqader said.
French civil aviation officials said 66 passengers were French. Many of the passengers were likely to hold dual nationality, however. Three babies were among the passengers, officials said. The plane set off from the Yemeni capital of Sana'a and went down before landing in Moroni, on the main island of Grand Comoros. The flight had originated in Paris and made a stopover in Marseille, which has a sizeable Comoran immigrant population. In Yemen, passengers changed planes. The flight made another stop in Djibouti before continuing toward Moroni, the capital.
Witnesses said they saw the A310 jet abort a landing attempt and veer out to sea before it disappeared. It was the second time in less than a month that an Airbus has crashed into the ocean. This time French authorities said the Yemeni carrier had been under surveillance and the plane had been banned from French airspace, though Mr Abdulqader denied that. Mr Abdulqader said he believed that the weather could be the main reason for the crash.
"The weather was turbulent as the plane approached Moroni. The wind speed was 61 kilometres per hour as the plane was landing," he said. French authorities said they detected faults in 2007 on the Yemenia A310-300 plane and the airline was under scrutiny, the French transport minister, Dominique Bussereau, said. However, Yemen's transport minister said the aircraft had undergone a thorough inspection in May under Airbus supervision.
"It was a comprehensive inspection carried out in Yemen with experts from Airbus," Khaled Ibrahim al Wazeer said. Mohammed Omar Momen, the chief of the Yemeni Engineers Union, said Yemen Air planes are subjected to regular inspections. "I do not think the long flight or the age of the jet has something to do with the crash, which is possibly caused by the wind. The planes are subject to regular inspections and check according to international standards," Mr Momen told reporters in Sana'a.
Mr Bussereau told the I-télé television channel that faults were discovered when the plane was inspected in 2007 by French transport authorities and that the plane had not returned to France since. "The company was not on the blacklist but was subject to stricter checks on our part and was due to be interviewed shortly by the European Union's safety committee," he said. A European Commission official said the crashed plane had sparked an inquiry into the Yemenia airline's safety record. The EC could not confirm whether there were plans by the EU's air safety committee to interview Yemenia.
Many of the passengers began their journey in Paris or Marseille aboard a different Yemenia plane, an A330. They switched to the A310-300 in Sana'a. France sent two navy ships and a plane from its nearby Indian Ocean territories to help the rescue. A committee led by the transportation minister was set up to investigate into this first crash in the history of Yemen airways, according to Mr Abdulqader. However, a Yemeni opposition coalition known as Joint Meeting Parties, a coalition of five parties, demanded a transparent investigation into the "national tragedy".
"This is a national tragedy and officials in the Yemen airways should resign or be presented to court. There has to be a quick, transparent and independent investigation into this crash as a kind of respect for the victims. People in charge of the faults that led to the crash should be held accountable," Mohammed al Sabri, a leading opposition figure, told opposition media. "The Yemen airways has been facing a number of problems including flight schedule, problems between the administration and the staff which led the staff to stage protests and strikes. Some of the cadre of the Yemenia also left for other companies. All these problems show the crash is not accidental and therefore an investigation should be done and results have to be announced," Mr al Sabri added.
The Yemen airways fleet is made of nine aircraft. Yemen owns 51 per cent of the company while the rest is owned by the Saudi government. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France-Presse