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Page last updated at 20:06 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 21:06 UK

Grief and fear in Brazil over lost plane

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

The Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, 2 June 2009
The French jet appears to have been lost over the Atlantic about 650km off the Brazilian islands of Fernando de Noronha (seen here)

It is only two years since Brazilians last awoke to morning newspapers full of headlines about a national air tragedy.

On the last occasion, in July 2007, a plane from the country's largest airline, Tam, sped off a runway at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo, crashing into a nearby building. In all, 199 people died, including everyone on the flight and some on the ground.

Now, following the disappearance of Air France AF 447, the country is again in a sombre mood as it watches relatives and friends go through the torment of waiting for news about their loved ones.

At least 58 Brazilians are among the missing, ranging from a member of the country' former royal family to the chief of staff of the mayor of Rio, business executives, students and people going to Europe on holiday.

It was truly an international tragedy with people from 32 countries on board the flight, the largest number coming from France itself.

Once more there seems an urgent need for answers, as families and friends struggle to understand how a modern aircraft such as an Airbus 330 could have disappeared in this way.

Private tragedies

As with the international press, analysis here has focused on the question of turbulence and the possibility that the plane was struck by lightning, but there are as many doubts as certainties.

Copies of Brazilian newspapers reporting the jet crash on 2 June
Pictures of victims dot the front pages of Brazilian papers

As always in the case of an air crash, it seems clear that the only definitive answers will come when the specialists get an opportunity to recover what they can from the Atlantic Ocean.

It is, as one French minister acknowledged, a race against time to recover the flight data recorders, or black boxes, as they are more commonly known, which, it is reported, are only programmed to emit signals for up to 30 days.

For the waiting relatives, the reports that a Brazilian pilot spotted what may have been burning wreckage on the night of the crash, and now the news that some debris has been recovered, is growing evidence that their worst fears are being realised.

On a stark page largely covered in black, the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo headlined its coverage as the Tragedy in the Atlantic.

For O Globo newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, the primary focus was the mystery of what could have caused the Air France flight to crash. For Estado de Paulo, it was an "unprecedented" tragedy.

Pictures of grief-stricken relatives have featured prominently in the coverage, and there are many sad individual stories here as there are in other parts of the World.

There was the university professor going to the congress in Paris, the oil engineer travelling to Germany on business, the couple heading off on their honeymoon after getting married on Saturday, when they celebrated with families and friends until three in the morning.

The mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, was mourning the almost certain loss of Marcelo Parente Gomes de Oliveira, not only a top aide, but a man who had been his friend from childhood.

"Among all the families that are here, I don't think there is anyone who has much hope," he said as he left the city's international airport.

Fear of flying

Among many Brazilians it seems the tragedy has undoubtedly introduced a renewed level of apprehension about air travel.

Firefighters tackle a blaze after the Tam air crash in at Congonhas airport, Sao Paulo, 17 July 2007
The plane in the Tam disaster skidded off the runway

A largely unaware public has been introduced to a discussion about the "inter-tropical convergence zone" through which the plane passed, and which is a belt of low pressure in the region of the Equator associated with heavy turbulence.

Pilots are well used to dealing with this area of instability, often flying over the thick clouds, it was reported. Other specialists said there seemed to be nothing from satellite images to suggest there was anything exceptional at the time the flight disappeared.

Even so, numerous reports on this topic have raised an uncomfortable issue for at least some people contemplating international travel.

The primary focus, however, remains on those most directly affected and the search still continuing out in the Atlantic.

Brazil is still dealing with the fallout from the Tam tragedy in 2007, and the earlier loss of another passenger plane over the Amazon in September 2006.

For many of the relatives who lost loved ones in those tragedies, there are still issues to be resolved and considerable bitterness remains.

With so much uncertainty about what caused the Air France flight to disappear, for the moment at least there is not the same anger or accusations being made against the authorities or the airline.

But now a new group of families must wait to see if their doubts and questions will be answered and, on issues as crucial as that, the sympathy of the public will not be enough.



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