A teen girl who is the only known survivor of a Yemeni jetliner crash spent a terrifying 13 hours clinging to plane wreckage in choppy ocean waters as she listened to the voices of victims in complete darkness, her father said.
"She's a very timid girl, I never thought she would escape like that," the girl's father, Kassim Bakari, said. "It is a true miracle."
Thirteen-year-old Bahia, who could barely swim, managed to hold on long enough for rescuers to find her bobbing in the water amid bodies and wreckage after a Yemenia Airbus 310 jet carrying 153 people crashed into the Indian Ocean early Tuesday as it attempted to land in the dark in howling winds.
"She said, 'Daddy, I don't know what happened, but the plane fell into the water and I found myself in the water ... surrounded by darkness. I couldn't see anymore,'" her father said.
Bakari said he spoke with his oldest daughter by phone after Tuesday's crash. Bahia had left Paris on Monday night with her mother to see family in the Comoros.
"She couldn't feel anything, and found herself in the water," the girl's father, Kassim Bakari, told France's RTL radio. "She heard people speaking around her but she couldn't see anyone in the darkness."
Said Mohammed, a nurse at El Mararouf hospital in the Comoros capital of Moroni, said the girl was doing well and doctors would release more on her condition later Wednesday.
A French government minister backed off claims Wednesday that the plane's black boxes — flight data and cockpit voice recorders — were found.
Sgt. Said Abdilai told Europe 1 radio that he rescued the girl after she was found bobbing in the water. She couldn't grasp the life ring rescuers threw to her, so he jumped into the sea, Abdilai said. He said rescuers gave the trembling girl warm water with sugar.
The crash a few miles off this island nation came two years after aviation officials reported equipment faults with the plane, an aging Airbus 310 flying the last leg of a Yemenia airlines flight from Paris and Marseille to the Comoros, with a stop in Yemen to change planes.
Most of the passengers were from the Comoros, a former French colony. Sixty-six on board were French nationals.
Turbulence was believed to be a factor in the crash, Yemen's embassy in Washington said.
Alain Joyandet, the French minister for cooperation, told i-Tele television that "it appears that the black boxes of the plane have been recovered." Joyandet gave no other details about recorders, which could provide key clues as to what happened.
Boats plied the waters Wednesday, trying to find other survivors. Yemen's embassy said five bodies had been found so far.
"The search is continuing," Joyandet said. "No other survivors have been found for the moment."
Both France and Airbus sent experts to the Comoros to aid in the investigation.
The tragedy — and dwindling hopes that anyone else made it out alive — 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.
The Comoros, a former French colony of 700,000 people, is an archipelago of three main islands situated 1,800 miles south of Yemen, between Africa's southeastern coast and the island of Madagascar.
Gen. Bruno de Bourdoncle de Saint-Salvy, the senior commander for French forces in the southern Indian Ocean, said the Airbus 310 crashed in deep waters about nine miles north of the Comoran coast and 21 miles from the Moroni airport. Searchers encountered an oil slick at the site, the Yemeni Embassy statement said.
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 and was not on the bloc's blacklist. But he said a full investigation was now being started amid questions why passengers were put on another jet in the Yemeni capital of San'a.
The vice president of Comoros criticized French officials for not telling his nation about any suspected problems.
"We wish the French could have informed us of any irregularity or any problems with that plane," Idi Nadhoim said Wednesday on France-24 television.
"Most if not all of the planes of Yemenia are Airbus," he said. "They are supposed to be serviced by Airbus."
"We trust the civil aviation authorities of the countries we are working with," he added, suggesting that French authorities discriminated against "those French who are left by themselves to fly this type of plane" — French citizens from former French colonies.
Airbus said the plane that crashed went into service 19 years ago, in 1990, and had accumulated 51,900 flight hours. It has been operated by Yemenia since 1999.