PARIS — The head of France’s air accident investigations bureau said on Monday that photographs taken by an underwater drone left little doubt that a heap of shattered metal discovered on a mountainous mid-Atlantic seabed over the weekend was the remains of an Air France jet that crashed nearly two years ago, killing all 228 people aboard.
“We have been able to identify several elements of the plane, in particular the engines,” Jean-Paul Troadec, director of the ’Bureau of Investigations and Analyses, said in a French radio interview.
The finding sparked fresh optimism that the plane’s flight recorders might be retrieved, helping to solve the mystery of what caused the twin-engine Airbus A330-200 to crash on June 1, 2009, in heavy thunderstorms en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro. Accident investigators were planning to unveil images of the wreckage later Monday at a news conference at the bureau’s headquarters near Paris.
French officials added that underwater cameras had also captured images of human remains within the wreckage.
“There are bodies in the part of the plane that was found,” Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a minister who oversees environmental and transport issues, told France-Inter radio, adding that it was possible those victims would eventually be identified.
Previously, 50 bodies were recovered from the ocean. They included 45 passengers, the plane’s captain and four crew members.
It remains uncertain whether the plane’s flight recorders remain attached to the plane’s fuselage. Investigators have said they may have become separated on impact with the water. It is also unclear if, after being immersed in salt water for nearly two years, and under significant pressure, the data they contain — voice recordings from the cockpit and information on the plane’s position, speed, altitude and heading when it ran into trouble — will be readable.
Mr. Troadec said the search boat, operated by about a dozen specialists from the’ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, was not equipped with appropriate equipment to recover the wreckage. The crew of the search boat, the Alucia, will continue to gather more detailed images of the wreck using state-of-the-art equipment similar to what was used to explore the remains of the Titanic in 1985. A team of salvage boats was headed to the site to help lift the plane from the seabed and was expected to arrive “in a few weeks,” Mr. Troadec said.
Decrypting the data on the flight recorders has gained a new urgency after the decision last month by a French judge to place both Airbus and Air France under formal investigation for involuntary manslaughter in the case. Under French law, being placed under formal investigation is one step short of criminal charges but could lead to a trial.
So far the main source of information about what happened has been messages sent automatically from the plane to a maintenance base, which indicated a malfunction of the plane’s airspeed sensors.