Girl who fell from the sky and lived

Twelve-year-old Bahia Bakari somehow spent 12 hours clinging on to life in the Indian Ocean after the Yemenia plane crash.

Powered by automated translation

In the midnight black waters a 12-year-old French schoolgirl, her collarbone broken and body badly bruised, held on to a piece of debris. At first she could hear people talking but could see nothing. Scared and trembling, she drifted in and out of sleep as the cold began to permeate her body. But as the hours ticked by this young girl, described by her father as "timid" and "barely able to swim", clung on to life.

As a new day dawned, she would be spotted by rescuers, plucked from the sea and gently nursed back to health. She had beaten incredible odds to be the sole survivor of the doomed Yemenia Airlines flight IY626. It was nearly 2am on Tuesday, with winds blowing at up to 60kph when the plane tried and failed to land on Moroni's runway. The ageing A310 Airbus made a second attempt on the Comoros island and at some point Bahia Bakari was told to strap herself into her seat. She was with her mother, Aziza, and they were flying to the Comoros to visit relatives for the summer holidays. This was the last leg of the four-stage journey, which had begun on Monday morning in Paris, continued on to Marseille, Sana'a, Djibouti and finally Moroni.

As instructions were being issued to passengers, Bahia felt something like an electric shock then, suddenly, she was floating in the Indian Ocean. Her long, lonely, terrifying ordeal begun. Some 12 hours later she was found, still clinging to the wreckage, by Sgt Said Abdilai. She was floating a few kilometres off the coast of Niazidja, the largest of the trio of islands that make up the Comoros on the south-east coast of Africa between Mozambique and Madagascar.

Few details have yet emerged of how Bahia managed to survive the disaster that killed 152 others on board, including her mother. But her bravery and tenacity are beyond doubt. Bahia's father, Kassim Bakari, who was reunited with his daughter after she was flown back to France, said: "In the midst of the mourning there is Bahia. It is a miracle, it is an absolutely extraordinary battle for survival.

"I took her in my arms and embraced her - but not too strongly, because her collarbone is injured." Two teams of investigators from the French government and from the plane's manufacturer, Airbus, which made the A310-300 model, are examining the crash site for clues as to what happened. Bahia is also expected to be interviewed by investigators, although she is recovering in a children's hospital in Paris after her flight home on Thursday on an executive jet chartered by the French government.

Her story is particularly poignant for France, which is still reeling from the tragedy of Air France flight AF447 which crashed into the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1. The Air France plane belly-flopped into the water in one piece from a height of 10,688 metres. Within a matter of seconds "with strong vertical acceleration" it had hit the ocean, leaving no time to follow basic safety procedures, the French bureau leading the investigation stated on Thursday in its first report on the disaster.

All 228 people on board are presumed dead. While signals emitted by beacons in the aircraft's data recording devices have probably expired, the search for the black boxes will continue for another week. Meanwhile, the inquiry into the Yemenia crash is just getting under way after the arrival of French air accident investigators on Comoros. What makes Bahia's story even more unusual is that she is the sole survivor. Typically, many passengers live or no one does. While rare, there have been other cases. In 1995, a nine-year-old Colombian girl, Erika Delgado, survived the crash of an Intercontinental Colombia airliner near Cartagena. The child fell out of the plane and her fall was cushioned by seaweed in a swamp.

"There needs to be a chain of events to happen in order to survive," said Dr Tom Barth, the director of research and development at AmSafe, an Arizona-based company that makes safety equipment for the aerospace and defence industries. "If one survived then there were opportunities for others to survive but the fact that none of the others did and she [Bahia] did is quite miraculous. "First, if we assume the people were in the plane when it impacted the water, the cockpit has to remain intact in order for passengers to survive. The cockpit, and the cabin, your immediate surroundings, your immediate space has to be intact so you are not crushed. The second step in the chain is the impact itself, that is, the acceleration has to be within human tolerance limits. The last is that the post-crash environment has to be survivable. Smoke, fire, or cold water in this case, are dangers."

Dr Barth speculated that Bahia's survival could have been because of the position of her seat on the plane. "Perhaps the front part of the plane broke up and she was in the back and fell through a crack through to the front," he said. "If she fell out, the aircraft certainly didn't break up in mid-air or no one would have survived. It will help investigators a lot to hear where she was in the plane."

It is nearly impossible for someone to survive in a plane that breaks up or explodes in mid-air. Life-threatening accidents occur once every 5.7 million departures, according to the University of Greenwich in London. Crashing in water can have a more severe impact than on land, said Amanda Ripley, the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. Ms Ripley writes that following instructions such as putting on life jackets or grabbing cushions as flotation devices are difficult to follow when a plane is about to crash land in water.

"Hitting the water is incredibly jarring. It is quite an impact. Many people may black out. The plane sinks quickly. You have to recover from the shock, unbuckle your seat belt and get up and out of the cabin. There is very little time to react." Which is why Cpt Chesley B Sullenberger was hailed as a hero for saving the lives of 155 passengers on January 15 after a flock of geese flew into the engines of US Airways Flight 1549.

He guided his plane over the Hudson River in New York, hitting the water at a rate of descent that was more than three times the speed it was designed to handle, cracking open the fuselage. Water flowed in so fast that the rear doors, which were supposed to stay above the water line for seven minutes, were under water quickly and inflatable rubber pieces attached to the rear doors, which can be used as rafts or slides, were useless, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Yet, Cpt Sullenberger had skilfully guided the doomed aircraft over the river, lifting the nose high and allowing the back of the plane to bear the brunt of the impact. "The recent crash in the Hudson was actually a unique example because they were able to land at perfect pitch angle so that the plane didn't dig into the water," said Mr Barth. Another factor was that passengers were able to scramble aboard nearby ferries, and did not spend time in the freezing water.

People who read the safety briefing cards and buckle their safety belts have a higher chance of survival. But sometimes it comes down to luck, according to Ms Ripley, "We don't know what happened in the Indian Ocean, but it's a safe bet that the most important factor was luck," she wrote in her blog. "The survivor's seat may have been located in just the right spot. But not even that can be predicted. What is the safest part of the plane in a water crash? There's no way to know because it depends on the crash. In general, being closer to the exit is better but there's no telling which exit until it's too late."

Bahia may be back at home and recovering but the controversy over Yemenia has not diminished. The Airbus was banned from French airspace in 2007 after a routine inspection revealed technical problems with the plane, but the government could not prevent Yemenia from using it in Sana'a, the departure point for the last leg of the journey to the Comoros. Things were so bad that last year, a 300-member group called SOS Voyage aux Comores protested outside Marseille airport to denounce the conditions on the flight, which were said to include blocked lavatories and broken seats.

The Comoran vice president and transport minister, Idi Nadhoim, accused Paris of failing to inform them about the Airbus's record. The Yemeni government, meanwhile, is indignant and officials said the plane was "technically sound" when it took off from Sana'a for Moroni. The transport minister, Khaled al Wazir, said at a news conference that his ministry "reserves the right to take legal action against the parties deliberately seeking to damage the image of the Yemeni national airline".

It may be too late for that.