The lone survivor of a Yemeni jetliner crash, who clung to wreckage for 13 hours before being rescued, lay in a hospital bed with a broken collarbone Wednesday, asking for little — except for a chance to see her mother.
But relatives said 14-year-old Bahia Bakari was too traumatized to be told her mother was feared dead, along with 151 others on board the Yemenia airways flight.
“I have told her that her mother is in the next room,” the girl’s uncle, Joseph Yousouf, told The Associated Press outside a hospital in this former French colony, where the jetliner was attempting to land in fierce winds before dawn Tuesday when it slammed into the Indian Ocean.
He said the girl was coherent and asking for food.
“They were coming to Comoros for vacation,” Yousouf said of Bahia, who lived with her parents and three younger siblings outside Paris. “She was going to be staying with her grandmother.”
The girl’s father, Kassim Bakari, described his daughter as “fragile” and said she could “barely swim,” but still managed to hang on for hours.
Her account of the crash aftermath seemed to indicate others survived the initial impact.
“I spoke to her this afternoon … and I asked her what happened,” Bakari said from his home in a suburb south of Paris. “She said ‘Papa, we saw the plane going down in the water. I was in the water, I could hear people talking, but I couldn’t see anyone. I was in the dark, I couldn’t see a thing.'”
Bakari fingered his wife Aziza’s old passport as he recalled the final moments before she and his daughter boarded the plane in Paris.
“When we arrived at the airport, I kissed both, then my wife turned around, she looked at me and she waved,” he said. “That was the last time I saw my wife alive. My daughter… I will see her again I hope, but for my wife it was the last time.”
The passengers on the downed plane, an aging Airbus 310, were flying the last leg of a journey from Paris and Marseille to Comoros, with a stop in Yemen to change planes. Most on board were from Comoros and 66 were French citizens. Severe turbulence was believed to be a factor in the crash, Yemen’s embassy in Washington said.
For many, Bahia’s survival was nothing short of miraculous.
On Wednesday, more than a dozen people — most of them government officials — crowded into a small room in Moroni’s El Maaruf Hospital where Bahia lay curled in a fetal position, covered by a blue blanket.
She was conscious with bruises on her face and gauze bandages on her right elbow and right foot; at one point, she gamely shook the hand of Alain Joyandet, France’s minister for international cooperation.
“It is a true miracle. She is a courageous young girl,” Joyandet said of Bahia, who held onto floating debris from 1:30 a.m to 3 p.m. before she was seen by a passing boat, which rescued her.
“She really showed an absolutely incredible physical and moral strength,” he said. “She is physically out of danger, but she is evidently very traumatized.”
Bahia was flown home to Paris late Wednesday aboard a chartered executive jet and was to be taken to a hospital for further treatment, Joyandet said.
French and American recovery crews, meanwhile, continued to search for the plane’s black boxes in deep waters off the Comoros after detecting a distress beacon. Officials hope the flight data and cockpit voice recorders will provide clues to the cause of the crash. Once retrieved, they will be taken to France for analysis, Yemenia said.
It was not immediately clear which section of the passenger cabin the girl had been sitting in. But if the plane flew into the water at speed, the impact damage to the fuselage would have been so violent and extensive that no part of the cabin would have been safer than any other, experts said.
Hassan al-Hawthi, the head of maintenance at Yemenia, told reporters Wednesday that air traffic controllers had instructed the pilot to change course because of the strong wind. He said there was no distress call before the crash.
The London-based International Federation of Air Line Pilots Association said the plane may have been trying to go around for another approach when it hit the sea.
The 9,558-feet long runway at Prince Said Ibrahim International Airport on Moroni island is adequate for modern airliners, but is considered a difficult one due to weather conditions and the surrounding hills. Some airlines provide special training to pilots who need to fly in there.
Pilots coming in from the north, as the Yemenia flight was doing, must land their planes visually and don’t have any all-weather instrument landing system to help them.
“The field in question is thought of as being challenging, and certain operators consider it a daytime-only airport,” said Gideon Ewers of the pilots’ association.
Tuesday’s crash came two years after aviation officials reported equipment faults with the plane.
The French air accident investigation agency BEA was sending a team of safety investigators, accompanied by advisers from Airbus, to Comoros, an archipelago of three main islands 1,800 miles south of Yemen, between Africa’s southeastern coast and the island of Madagascar.
A judicial inquiry headed by three judges was also opened to determine the cause of the crash and those who eventually could be held responsible.
Rescue boats plied the waters north of the main island Wednesday and scores of people gathered on nearby beaches to watch.
“The sea is pretty rough at the present time, the wind is blowing hard and the drift is strong … The bodies of the victims and the debris are drifting rapidly towards the north,” said Christophe Prazuck, spokesman for the French military joint staff.
The tragedy prompted an outcry in Comoros, where residents have long complained of a lack of seat belts on Yemenia flights and planes so overcrowded that passengers had to stand in the aisles.
French aviation inspectors found a “number of faults” in the plane’s equipment during a 2007 inspection, French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said.
European Union Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani said the airline had previously met EU safety checks but would now face a full investigation amid questions over why passengers were put on another jet in Yemen for the final leg to Comoros.
“We can’t accept that a plane is banned from Europe but still allowed to fly in Africa. It’s the proof that our world isn’t fair and that human beings don’t weigh the same depending on which side of the Mediterranean they are,” said Gilles Poux, mayor of the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, where Comorans gathered for prayers.
Mohammed Abdul Qader, the Yemenia spokesman and deputy head of civil aviation, said the same plane that crashed had flown to London about a week ago.
Abdul-Khaleq Al-Qadi, chairman of Yemenia’s board, said the company has decided to pay families $28,300 for each death.
He added that maintenance was carried out regularly according to high standards.
“The crash has nothing to do with maintenance,” he told reporters in San’a, adding that the aircraft received maintenance just two months before the crash under the supervision of an Airbus technical team.