Sole crash survivor ‘could hardly swim’, says father

Author: By Peter Popham

Bahia Bakari was recovering in a hospital in Moroni, the capital of the Comoros islands, yesterday after surviving for more than 11 hours in stormy seas after the plane came down. She was spotted by one of a flotilla of vessels looking for survivors.

“She is a very, very shy girl,” said Mr Bakari. “I would never have thought she would have survived like this. I can’t say that it is a miracle, I would prefer to say that it is God’s will.”

Her father, who was widowed when his wife, Bahia’s mother, was killed in the disaster, recounted details of her memories of the crash. “I asked her what happened,” he said. “She said, ‘We saw the plane fall into the water. I found myself in the water. I was hearing people speak, but I couldn’t see anyone. I was in the dark. I couldn’t see anything. Daddy, I couldn’t swim very well. I grabbed on to something but I don’t know what’.” He added: “When I spoke to her she was asking for her mother. They told her she was in the room next door [in the hospital]. But it’s not true. I don’t know who is going to tell her…”

Bahia’s remarkable story has drawn huge attention in the midst of the catastrophe the authorities are trying to unravel. New details to emerge yesterday only heightened the response. Alain Joyandet, France’s minister for International Development who visited her in hospital in the former French colony said: “It’s a true miracle. She is a courageous young girl.” He said she clung on to a floating piece of wreckage from 1.30am to 3pm when she found the energy to wave to a passing boat. “She really showed an absolutely incredible physical and moral strength,” he added.

An officer on the vessel, Sgt Said Abdilai, said that Bahia was too weak to grasp the lifebelt rescuers threw her so he jumped into the sea and rescued her himself. She was trembling helplessly, he added. On board the ship the crew revived her with sweetened warm water. Mr Bakari said he had despaired of seeing his wife or daughter alive after news of the crash. His wife, like the other 151 passengers and crew, is missing, believed dead. But he said he could not believe his good fortune when he heard his daughter had survived.

Bahia suffered a fractured collarbone and bruises to her face in the crash but was recovering well, according to hospital staff. “She is conscious, she is speaking, but we are not asking her too many questions so as not to tire her,” said Dr Ada Mansour. Last night she was due to be flown to Paris for further treatment.

When news emerged of the crash, which occurred in wild weather on the descent towards Moroni, a trawler, a container ship and numerous small fishing boats set out to look for survivors. Despite extensive searches, no bodies have been recovered. But after many hours, it was reported that a teenage girl had survived.

Bahia Bakari and her mother, like many others on the flight, were what people in the islands call “je-viens” or “I-come”: locals who have emigrated to France for work but who return every summer for a holiday. News of the crash provoked an angry reaction in the islands. Locals said they had complained for years about the crowded and shabby conditions on Yemenia’s planes.

The airline faced questions as to why the passengers bound for Moroni were flown from Paris to Marseilles on one Yemenia Airbus but then transferred to the doomed aircraft. The French Transport minister Dominique Bussereau said French inspectors had found “a number of faults” in the plane during an inspection in 2007. But the vice-president of Comoros, Idi Nadhoim, commented: “We wish the French could have informed us of any irregularity or any problems with that plane.”

France’s Defence Ministry said last night that the plane’s flight recorders had yet to be located.

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