Lone survivor of 2009 Yemenia Airways crash attends French court hearing

Bahia Bakari clung to floating debris for 11 hours after the plane plunged into the Indian Ocean, killing 152 people

Bahia Bakari arrives at the courthouse in Paris, France. AP

The lone survivor of a 2009 passenger plane crash that killed 152 people sat in the front row of a Paris courtroom at the opening of the trial of the Yemeni airline that operated the flight.

Bahia Bakari, who has called her survival “a miracle”, sat in silence as the victims’ names were read out at the start of the proceedings in a room heavy with emotion.

At only 12 years old, Ms Bakari clung to floating debris from the plane for 11 hours in the Indian Ocean before being rescued. Now 25, she recently told France 3 television she would attend the trial with both “apprehension” and “relief.”

The trial is needed to “finally know the truth,” said Ms Bakari, who lost her mother in the crash. The French court opened the hearings on Monday.

Yemenia Airways, whose representatives will not be in the dock due to the country's still-raging civil war, faces a maximum fine of €225,000 ($237,772) for involuntary homicide and injuries in a trial expected to last four weeks.

On June 29, 2009, the airline's flight 626 was approaching Moroni, the capital of the Comoros Islands, which lie between Mozambique and Madagascar, after departing from the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.

France's overseas territory of Mayotte is also part of the Comoros archipelago. Among the 142 passengers and 11 crew were 66 French citizens.

Shortly before 11pm, the Airbus A310 plunged into the Indian Ocean with its engines running at full throttle, killing everyone on board except Ms Bakari.

In interviews and a book of her own, Ms Bakari remembered “turbulence” during the approach, before feeling what seemed to be an electric shock and then blacking out — only to find herself in the sea.

Ms Bakari was joined in court by about 100 family members and friends of the crash victims.

She is expected to testify on May 23 but has refused to speak to the press.

A soldier looks at flight 626's wreckage, which was recovered from the Indian Ocean, at a disused hangar in Moroni, the Comoros Islands, in September 2009. AFP

Although the black boxes were found weeks after the crash, France accused the Comoros government of dragging its feet in the investigation, while victims' families accused Yemen of lobbying to hinder the trial of the national airline.

“Thirteen years is a very long time. It is psychologically and morally exhausting, even physically,” said Said Assoumani, president of a victims' association.

“But after 13 years of waiting and impatience, the criminal trial has finally come.”

Investigators and experts found that there was nothing wrong with the aircraft, blaming instead “inappropriate actions by the crew during the approach to Moroni airport, leading to them losing control”.

However, Yemenia Airways has been attacked by prosecutors for pilot training “riddled with gaps” and continuing to fly to Moroni at night despite its non-functioning landing lights.

“Yemenia remains deeply marked by this catastrophe … nevertheless it maintains its innocence,” said Leon-Lef Forster, the company's lawyer.

Meanwhile, Sebastien Busy, a lawyer for another victims' association, said the absence of any company representatives at the trial “leaves the families and the survivor with a bitter taste”.

“It is very regrettable. If they don't show up, it is because they have something to hide,” said Ms Bakari's father, Jeff, who lost his wife in the crash.

About 560 people have joined the suit as plaintiffs, many of them from the region around Marseille in southern France, home to many of the victims.

A video feed to the southern port city has been set up for their benefit, allowing them to follow part of the proceedings.

Updated: May 10, 2022, 8:27 AM