Bodies from Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean almost two years ago, have been found by aquatic robots, and will be brought to the surface within a month, officials said.
"We have bodies ... there are bodies that are still in the parts that have been found," Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, minister Minister of ecology, sustainable development, transport and housing for France, told Radio France Monday.
Of the 228 people onboard who perished, 177 bodies are still missing. Fifty-one bodies were recovered in the days following the May 31, 2009, crash, which occurred shortly after Flight 447 took off from Rio de Janeiro en route to Paris.
"It is impossible to tell you … the exact number of bodies we have down there," said Alain Bouillard, the chief investigator in charge of France's aviation accident investigation agency, or BEA. "As we've said before, the priority are the black boxes. We can only be happy that at this stage, two years after this accident, we have hope. The desperate need to understand may potentially be answered."
Most of the passengers were Brazilian, French and German. An American couple, Anne and Michael Harris, who were living in Brazil and have family in Louisiana, were also onboard. Michael Harris, 60, was a geologist in Rio de Janeiro. He worked for Devon Energy, a U.S.-based independent natural gas and oil producer.
After takeoff, the Airbus A330 jetliner began to experience electrical problems and read the plane's speed incorrectly. Several hours later, the plane could no longer be spotted on radar. It plunged into the ocean, with most of the fuselage still intact.
Investigators hope to find the plane's two black box flight recorders, which would help them piece together what caused the crash.
A French magistrate recently began investigating Airbus and Air France to see if the companies should be charged with involuntary manslaughter. Judge Sylvie Zimmerman is overseeing the probe. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, both the airline and the airplane manufacturer could face criminal charges.
This latest deep-sea expedition is the fourth attempt to recover flight data recorders. The BEA, announced Sunday that a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Mass., had found pieces of the plane. Images captured by sonar on the BEA website show landing gear, wings and engines at the bottom of the dark sea.
Investigators used robotic vehicles called Remus 6000s to survey miles of underwater terrain. The robotic devices can stay underwater for up to 20 hours at a time, and are then returned to a ship so data can be downloaded.
"We spent two months searching in a different part of the sea floor last year and turned up nothing," said David Gallo, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute project leader on the expedition. "We had three months allocated to finding the aircraft, luckily we found it after the first week."
Gallo's team launched three Remus torpedo-shaped robots, which it programmed to follow a specific route on the ocean floor. Each one is about 13 feet long and weighs about 2,000 pounds. Using sonar, the robots came into contact with something large. From their ship, investigators turned on the robot's camera and took several black and white photos. It wasn't until the robots returned to the ship and the data and photos were extracted from the hard drive inside that the team realized it had found the missing aircraft.
"We have very clear images of the engine and fuselage and the underbelly of the plane. I understand there are bodies, but I haven't seen any of those photos," said Gallo, who was there when the Woods Hole ship sailed from a Brazilian port and is now back in his office on Cape Cod. Scientists on the ship are not allowed to speak about what they have seen.
Next Stage Includes ROVsGallo said his team's mission is complete. The next phase is for a new team of experts to come in using remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs. Those machines can lift heavy objects, including the fuselage. Both of the black boxes -- one that would have recorded cockpit conversations and one that would contain data regarding speed and location -- would be located in the tail of that particular type of plane.
"The whole area is being treated like a crime scene," Gallo said. "It's in the hands of the French judicial system now. Right now I'm not allowed to communicate with the ship."