RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Stormy seas and heavy clouds hampered the search Tuesday for wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean with 228 people aboard. French investigators said a series of extraordinary events likely brought the airliner down.
Rescuers scanned deep waters in a vast zone extending from far off northeastern Brazil to waters off West Africa, but so far have not turned up any signs of the plane or survivors. The 4-year-old Airbus jet was last heard from at 0214 GMT Monday ((10:14 p.m. EDT Sunday) en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
Investigators on both sides of the ocean worked through the night to determine what brought it down — wind and hail from towering thunderheads, lightning, or a catastrophic combination of factors.
French military spokesman Christophe Prazuck said bad weather made the search difficult Tuesday, with heavy clouds forcing search planes to fly very low over the water and limiting their line of sight.
"For the time being we can't find anything," he said. "There are a lot of squalls, a lot of storms."
Even once debris is found, the rescuers' work will be arduous.
"The research area overhangs an underwater mountain range as big as the Andes," Prazuck said. "The underwater landscape is very steep."
France's junior minister for transport, Dominique Bussereau, predicted a "very long investigation, it could be several days, several weeks, or several months."
French police were studying passenger lists and maintenance records, and preparing to take DNA from passengers' relatives to help identify any bodies. If there are no survivors, as feared, it would be the world's worst aviation disaster since 2001.
France's Defense Minister Herve Morin said "we have no signs so far" indicating terrorism was involved, but told French radio "all hypotheses must be studied."
Alain Bouillard, who led the probe into the crash of the Concorde in July 2000, was put in charge of the accident investigation team.
President Barack Obama told French television stations the United States was ready to do everything necessary to find out what happened to the missing plane. France has sought U.S. satellite help to find the wreckage.
The French minister overseeing transportation, Jean-Louis Borloo, said officials don't think that lightning, even from a fierce tropical storm, could have brought down the aircraft.
"There really had to be a succession of extraordinary events to be able to explain this situation," Borloo said on RTL radio Tuesday.
The chance of finding survivors now "is very very small, even nonexistent," Borloo said. "The race against the clock has begun" to find the plane's two black boxes, which emit signals up to 30 days.
Brazil's largest airline, TAM, said its pilots flying from Paris to Rio spotted what they thought was fire in the ocean along the Air France jet's route. But Brazil's air force said a French merchant ship — the Douce France — searched that area "without identifying any trace of the flight."
Two Brazilian air force jets conducted night searches over the Atlantic early Tuesday, joining other Brazilian aircraft, including two helicopters. The first of three Brazilian ships was expected to arrive in the remote area Wednesday.
French sent a specially equipped surveillance plane to the area from a French base in Senegal, as well as a frigate from the Caribbean and another ship from Portugal, Morin said.
With nothing more to go on than the last point where Flight 447 made contact — about 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) northeast of the Brazilian coastal city of Natal — search teams faced an immense area of open ocean, with depths as much as 15,000 feet (4,570 meters).
On board the flight were 61 French citizens, 58 Brazilians, 26 Germans, nine Chinese and nine Italians. A lesser number of citizens from 27 other countries also were on the passenger list, including two Americans.
Among them were three young Irish doctors, returning from two-week vacation in Brazil. Aisling Butler's father John paid tribute to his 26-year-old daughter, from Roscrea, County Tipperary.
"She was a truly wonderful, exciting girl. She never flunked an exam in her life — nailed every one of them — and took it all in her stride," he said.
Air France was helping some passengers' relatives at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, where some 40 people remained Tuesday, and at another center in Rio.
The Airbus A330-200 was cruising normally at 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) and 522 mph (840 kph) just before it disappeared nearly four hours into the flight. No trouble was reported as the plane left radar contact, beyond Brazil's Fernando de Noronha archipelago.
But just north of the equator, a line of towering thunderstorms loomed. Bands of extremely turbulent weather stretched across the Atlantic toward Africa.
Soon afterward, the plane sent an automatic message reporting electrical system failure and a loss of cabin pressure. Air France said the message was the last it heard from Flight 447.
Bussereau described "a kind of outburst" of automated messages from the plane before it lost contact with ground controllers, "which means something serious happened, as eventually the circuits switched off."
The plane disappeared in an area of the mid-Atlantic ocean not covered by radar. Brazilian, African, Spanish and French air traffic controllers tried in vain to establish contact.
The pilot had 11,000 hours of flying experience, including 1,700 hours flying this aircraft.
Experts said the absence of a mayday call meant something happened very quickly.
France's parliament will hold a moment of silence later Tuesday, and the French soccer team will wear black arm bands and hold a moment of silence ahead of a match against Nigeria on Tuesday night.
Associated Press reporters Emma Vandore, Jean-Pierre Verges and Laurent Joan-Grange in Paris; Alan Clendenning and Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo and Marco Sibaja in Brasilia contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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