Force of Air Algérie crash means victims may not be identified

Black boxes from flight AH5017 arrive in Paris, and investigators say it could take several weeks to determine what happened

French air accident investigators say they are reasonably optimistic about establishing what caused an Air Algérie aircraft to fall from the sky over Mali on Thursday, apparently plunging more than 30,000ft in three minutes.

However, identifying the 118 victims is likely to prove difficult because of the violence of the crash, say officials at the site in Mali.

Flight AH5017 from Burkina Faso to Algeria disappeared off the radar screens during the early hours of last Thursday. Air traffic control recordings show that the Spanish pilots had reported heavy storms and asked to turn back.

Minutes later the plane, less than an hour into its flight and laden with fuel, seems to have dropped to the ground. A scorched crater at the site of the crash – in Mali's Gossi region, near the border with Burkina Faso – and a limited scattering of small parts of the aircraft are testament to the violence of the impact.

Radar recordings show the plane's last contact at 1.47am local time. A witness reported seeing a ball of flame in the crash area at about 1.50am, suggesting the tragedy happened in minutes.

One witness said it was "as if a bomb had fallen" on the desert, and that the plane had hit the ground at a steep angle and at full speed, ruling out any attempt at an emergency landing.

Police investigators and gendarmes at the scene say the plane was "pulverised" and they have found no bodies. Even finding traces of the victims – who included one Briton and 54 French people, including entire families – is proving a challenge, with stifling heat alternating with torrential rain in a remote area.

The two flight recorders arrived in Paris on Monday. The main black box, which records flight data, was retrieved intact and the information has been extracted. The second, a cockpit recorder, was found damaged. Officials say the magnetic band that stores the sounds and conversations from the cockpit is "creased and broken" in places.

Rémi Jouty, director of France's air investigator, the Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyse (BEA), told the radio station Europe 1 that finding out exactly what happened to the plane could take several weeks, but he was optimistic about discovering the cause of the crash.

General Gilbert Diendéré, chief of staff to Burkina Faso's president, Blaise Compaoré, said: "I don't think we will be able to return any bodies. They were scattered, dispersed. I'm not even sure we'll be able to find all of them. The fall was dramatic and very fast."


Kim Willsher

The GuardianTramp

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