A severely bruised young girl believed to be the only survivor of an Indian Ocean plane crash flew back Thursday to Paris, where she was embraced gently by her father, who tried to lift her spirits with a joke.
Bahia Bakari, 12, returned to France from the Comoros Islands on a French government plane. The Falcon-900 jet with medical facilities left the archipelago nation, a former French colony, and arrived at Le Bourget airport just north of Paris.
Yemenia Flight 626 crashed Tuesday morning off Comoros amid heavy winds. Bahia, described by her father as a fragile girl who could barely swim, spent over 13 hours in the water clinging to wreckage before she was rescued. She was found suffering from hypothermia, a fractured collarbone and widespread bruises to her face, elbow and foot.
The other 152 people on the plane, including her mother and others from France's large Comoran community, are presumed dead.
Anger over the crash ran high Thursday in France's Comoran community. In Marseille, police broke up a protest of hundreds of shouting demonstrators who tried to block passengers from boarding a Yemenia airlines flight to Moroni, the Comoros capital. There were no injuries.
"We don't want any more Yemenia flights as long as justice has not been done," said Farid Solihi, president of "SOS Trips to the Comoros," a group seeking to draw attention to what they call poor conditions on Yemenia flights.
Yemenia announced Thursday night that it was suspending all flights from Marseille to Moroni for an indefinite period because of the danger to passengers and airline personnel. It said it would reimburse tickets for canceled flights.
On Thursday evening, French President Nicolas Sarkozy attended a memorial at the main mosque in Paris for the victims. He said his government would organize transportation for those families of the victims who wanted to travel to the Comoros to pay homage to them.
Hundreds of Comorans held a silent march after the service. "It is all the Comorans who are mourning," said Nadia Bakari, a 24-year-old student of Comoran origin.
In the Comoros, French and U.S. ships and officials directed the search for survivors. Alain Baulin, a commander with the French Foreign Legion, said military planes spotted what appear to be life jackets floating in the sea Thursday and divers were sent to the scene.
Television station France 2 carried a brief interview with Bahia on the plane coming home Thursday. She appeared dazed and gave mostly one-word answers. Asked how she felt, the teenager, who could barely open one of her black-and-blue eyes, replied faintly "Well."
When asked if she is worried, she said: "A little bit, a little bit."
One of the medical workers accompanying her on the flight told France 2 that Bahia had not talked to them about what happened.
Bahia's father, Kassim, met her as she arrived, saying he was relieved and overjoyed to see his daughter even as he mourned his wife.
"It was very powerful," he said of his reunion with Bahia. He said he asked her, "'How are you? Was the return trip OK?' ... We joked a little, the two of us."
"I took her in my arms and I embraced her, but not too strongly because her collarbone is injured," he said later on France-24 television.
Several other family members joined the airport reunion before an ambulance took the girl to the Armand-Trousseau Children's Hospital in eastern Paris.
At that hospital, Dr. Isabelle Constant said Bahia was suffering from multiple, moderately serious contusions and burns that require specialized care but her life was not in danger. Bahia and her close family members were also receiving psychological care, a hospital statement said.
"In the midst of the mourning, there is Bahia. It is a miracle, it is an absolutely extraordinary battle for survival," France's cooperation minister, Alain Joyandet, who flew back with her, said at the airport. "It's an enormous message that she sends to the world ... almost nothing is impossible."
Joyandet said Bahia was told "that her mother is missing. She is facing up to this event in a very brave way."
Bahia, the eldest of four children, had boarded a plane in Paris with her mother, Aziza, on Monday morning for a long journey via Marseille and San'a, Yemen, to Comoros where they planned to spend part of the summer with relatives. Her three siblings had stayed behind with her father.
Joyandet said the girl recounted her ordeal a bit to him.
"She says instructions were given to passengers and that then she felt something like electricity ... as if she had been a bit electrocuted," Joyandet said. "And suddenly there was this big sound. She found herself in the water."
"She said she was afraid when she couldn't see her mama," her father told France-24. "She was a bit panicked."
At one point, he said, Bahia fell asleep, clinging to a piece of debris.
The French air accident investigation agency BEA sent a team of investigators and Airbus experts to Comoros, an archipelago of three main islands 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) south of Yemen, between Africa's southeastern coast and the island of Madagascar.
France's transport minister, Dominique Bussereau, was quoted as saying Thursday in the Le Figaro daily that "worrying anomalies" in the crashed Airbus A310 jet included broken seats for crew and passengers, out-of-date operation manuals, insufficient pressure on emergency exit doors and unrestrained equipment in the baggage hold. French aviation authorities flagged the problems with the plane during a 2007 inspection.
Yemenia's lawyer in France, however, said it was too early to say that the plane's condition was the cause of the accident.
Off the coast of the Comoros islands, ships searched for survivors, bodies and wreckage Thursday, even as hope faded of finding anyone alive in the choppy seas.
"Up to this moment, there have been no bodies, nor any other survivor," said Jean Youssouf, director-general of El Maarouf Hospital in Moroni. "Do we continue to hope to find survivors? Yes, we will continue to hope."
Tales of sole survivors of plane crashes are rare, but not unheard of.
In 2006, only Martin Farkas survived when Slovak military plane went down in northeastern Hungary, killing 42 people. And in 1987, 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan was the only survivor when an American Northwest Airlines flight crashed while trying to take off from Detroit, killing 156 people.
Source: AP Features