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‘I told them the truth,’ Sarkozy says

Relatives waited in anguish for word of their loved ones late Monday after officials said there was little hope of finding any survivors of the Air France jetliner carrying 228 people that disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean.

The Airbus A330 en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris flew into a wall of tropical thunderstorms, encountering heavy turbulence and experiencing an electrical failure, shortly before disappearing Monday morning, authorities said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met with relatives of those on Flight 447 at Charles de Gaulle airport, said no cause had been ruled out for what he described as the “worst catastrophe Air France has ever known.”

Sarkozy hurried Monday afternoon to a crisis center that had been set up at the airport for distraught relatives and friends, who police rushed through the terminal to the isolated area to be attended by counselors, clergy and airline officials.

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Similar scenes of anguish played out at the airport in Rio. The passengers included executives of the French corporation Michelin; city officials of Rio; and leaders of Viva Rio, a renowned civic group that works against crime and poverty, Brazilian authorities said.

Later, Sarkozy told reporters that the families were “extremely dignified and courageous.”

“I told them the truth: The chances of finding survivors are very weak,” Sarkozy said. “We know there was strong turbulence, but other planes have experienced turbulence. . . . The specialists refuse at this stage of the probe to favor this or that lead. A lot of work is underway regarding the meteorological conditions and the last conversation with the cockpit.”

In a sign that authorities lean toward an accident scenario, the investigation was assigned to officials in suburban Bobigny near the airport, working with investigators of the paramilitary gendarmerie detailed to the transport secretariat. If foul play were suspected, the case would be handled by prosecutors in Paris and anti-terrorism police.

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The last voice communication from the Air France passenger jet came when it was near the island of Fernando de Noronha, about 200 miles off Brazil’s coast. Brazilian air force officials said the missing airliner was about to enter Senegal’s airspace when it disappeared carrying 216 passengers and a 12-member crew.

At about 4:15 a.m. Monday Paris time, the aircraft emitted a series of a dozen automatic alerts indicating “multiple instruments had broken down” and caused “a totally unprecedented situation in the plane,” Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, the director-general of KLM-Air France, said at a news conference. He declined to make a “direct connection” between those technical messages and the turbulence.

“It’s probable that the impact in the Atlantic occurred shortly after those messages,” Gourgeon said.

On Monday night, search aircraft worked between the Brazilian and African coasts, he said.

The Airbus A330-200 left Rio at 7:03 p.m. local time Sunday. About four hours later, it was in the storm zone, and 14 minutes later the automatic alerts were sent, the airline said in a statement.

The 216 passengers consisted of 126 men, 82 women, seven children and one infant. The crew comprised three pilots and nine flight attendants.

Air France said the captain had logged 11,000 flight hours and had flown 1,700 hours on Airbus A330/A340s. Of the two first officers, one had flown 3,000 flight hours and the other 6,600. The model involved in the crash is considered one of the safest in the Airbus fleet .

On Monday, Brazilian officials began a search-and-rescue mission using five planes, three boats and two helicopters. A French Breguet Atlantique plane departed from Senegal in Africa to help in the operation. France requested the help of the Pentagon to use U.S. satellites to detect wreckage, according to French Defense Ministry officials.

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Officials said there were 32 nationalities represented aboard the plane, including 61 French, 58 Brazilians and 26 Germans. The list provided by Brazilian authorities also included two Americans.

As relatives of those on Flight 447 waited for answers, at least two French travelers in Brazil considered themselves survivors.

A French doctor and his wife had rushed to the airport in Rio on Sunday evening in hopes of catching the flight. They even enlisted the aid of a French consul to try to get them seats, but Air France staff could not accommodate them, he said.

“It’s miraculous,” the doctor, Claude Jaffiol, said in an interview with Le Figaro newspaper. “We were supposed to be on that plane.”

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rotella@latimes.com

Sicakyuz is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Peter Pae and Michael Muskal in Los Angeles and special correspondents Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia, and Marcelo Soares in Sao Paulo, Brazil, contributed to this report.


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