PARIS – The mysterious fate of Air France flight 447 took place when France was asleep.
Monday dawned fine and clear, a holiday – Pentacost Monday – the end of a 3-day weekend; the kind of day Parisians spend strolling in parks or people-watching from café tables.
The flight from Rio was on no one’s lips.
They talked about the French Open, where Rafael Nadal uncharacteristically lost on Sunday. They chatted about the financial collapse of fashion designer Christian Lacroix. Parents carried kids on their shoulders to an Eiffel tower exhibition.
Not until about 11 a.m., the time the Rio-to-Paris Air France flight was scheduled to land here, did news begin to dribble out.
By 2 p.m. sporadic reports of a missing plane coursed through crowded cafes, seeming to fall out of the sky like some errant news meteor – a tragedy at odds with a brilliant blue afternoon.
By the end of the day, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport. He stated forthrightly and somberly: “Tonight we have lost trace of an Air France airplane with 228 people on board, passengers and crew. We have no exact idea what happened. It’s a catastrophe the likes of which Air France has never seen.”
The puzzle left in the wake of today’s reports: How, in an era of Mars landings, Skype, and stock prices on cellphones carried into the Himalayas – does an aircraft with 228 people, 8 of them children, go missing?
By 2:30 p.m. the French media had shaken off the holiday vibe and was giving the event wall-to-wall coverage.
The director general of Air France, Pierre Henri Gourgeon said that, “’Air France is sorry to announce the disappearance of the AF 447 flight between Rio de Janeiro and Paris-Charles de Gaulle, arrival scheduled this morning at 11.10 AM.”
A series of official statements followed: A defense of the Airbus 330-200 aircraft.
Airbus, you will recall, is a European aircraft consortium, with sixteen factories in four countries: France, Germany, Britain, and Spain.
But the transportation minister refused to offer any hypothesis about what happened.
An official timeline was given that still leaves unanswered the question of how so many hours could pass between the last contact of the plane, the 4:14 a.m. distress signal, and the notification of French military by French air authorities at “between 7 and 8 a.m.,” as Mr. Gourgeon described.
Eventually, information on the nationality of the passengers of flight 447 was released by Air France: 61 French citizens, 58 Brazilians, 26 Germans …. In all, 32 nationalities were on board.
Many family members of passengers had not been informed of the AF447 crisis by the time they arrived at the airport. At Charles de Gaulle, they were given privacy, and shown being whisked by bus to a crisis center.
Some held their hands over their mouths in grief as they passed through a gauntlet of awkward bystanders in the terminal, and beneath arrival screens for jets from all over the world.
On TV, aeronautics experts began debating the possible causes. The initial theory of a lightening strike put out by Air France was put down by numerous technical commentators (including in this story by an American pilot who flies the Airbus 330) – who said there were too many redundant systems on planes, which in any event fly in inclement weather all the time.
One expert panel debated a nimbus cloud theory. They suggested a freak set of pressures at high altitudes in clouds towering up to 50,000 feet, could conceivably crack open the cabin.
Gerard Jouany, an aviation journalist, said that back-up systems would allow the pilots to radio, and said the tragedy must have been a combination of events that are unknown.
President Sarkozy announced help from Brazil, the US, and Spain but pointed to the vast stretches of ocean involved.
So far, the experts seem at loss to explain the technical and mechanical and logistical elements that could add up to such a loss. (See the Monitor’s story on that here.)
Finding the answers for the human heart and the tragic dimension also remains.