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14-year-old girl is lone survivor of plane crash that killed 152

Bahia Bakari, 14, in her hospital bed after her plane crashed into the Indian Ocean. She has a broken collarbone and bruises.

Associated Press

Bahia Bakari, 14, in her hospital bed after her plane crashed into the Indian Ocean. She has a broken collarbone and bruises.

MORONI, Comoros — 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 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.

The girl was thrown from the plane and into the waves, where she heard voices but saw no one in the darkness, her father told a French radio station.

"She is a very, very shy girl. I never thought she would survive like that," Kassim Bakari said of his daughter, Bahia, in an interview with French RTL radio from his suburban Paris home. "When I had her on the phone, I asked her what happened and 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 could hear people talking, but I couldn't see anyone. I was in the dark, I couldn't see a thing."

Bakari said she was not a good swimmer, but that she was able to cling to floating debris for hours. Eventually she saw a boat and managed to signal it. Rescuers found her surrounded by floating corpses. One rescuer, Sgt. Said Abdilai, told Europe 1 radio she was too weak to grab the life ring thrown to her, so he jumped into the sea for her. The trembling girl was given warm water with sugar, he said.

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.

The Airbus was 19 years old and had been banned from flying in France in 2007, according to the French transportation minister, Dominique Bussereau. Yemenia officials said that the plane's faults were minor and had been corrected, and that the crash was due to stormy weather, not to any technical fault. They said the plane had last been serviced on May 2.

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.

Rescue workers and French and U.S. search planes scoured the area north of the archipelago Wednesday for more survivors as debris was scattered for miles.

Bahai boarded the doomed plane with her mother; the two were traveling to Comoros to visit relatives. Her mother, like the rest of the passengers, is presumed dead, but Bahai doesn't know that.

"When I spoke to her she was asking for her mother," her father said. "They told her she was in a room next door, so as not to traumatize her. But it's not true. I don't know who is going to tell her. ... I can't tell her that." Bakari was also struggling with how to tell the couple's three other children, ages 10, 8 and 2.

Bahia was flown home to Paris late Wednesday aboard a chartered jet and was to be taken to a hospital for further treatment.

"She told me that she remembered when the flight attendants asked the passengers to fasten their seat belts, and then she remembers being in the water for hours before the lifeboat came," said her uncle, Joseph Youssouf.

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."

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.

It was not clear which section of the cabin the girl had been sitting in. But if the plane flew into the water at speed, the 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, said 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 tragedy prompted an outcry in Comoros, where residents have long complained of a lack of seat belts on Yemenia flights and planes so crowded that passengers had to stand in the aisles.

Idi Hadhoim, Comoros' vice president and transport minister, scolded French authorities for not warning his nation about the Airbus 310's questionable safety record.

"I wish the French could have informed us about any irregularities with this plane," he said. "What is this? Discrimination between French passengers that have to be protected in France and those French people who are left to fly in these kinds of planes?"

The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and New York Times contributed to this report.

14-year-old girl is lone survivor of plane crash that killed 152 07/01/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 2, 2009 6:23am]
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