RECIFE, Brazil – Searchers found two bodies and the first confirmed debris — a briefcase containing an Air France Flight 447 ticket — in the Atlantic Ocean near where the jetliner is believed to have crashed, a Brazil military official said Saturday.
The French agency investigating the disaster, meanwhile, said airspeed instruments were not replaced as the maker recommended before the plane disappeared in turbulent weather nearly a week ago during a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris with 228 people aboard.
All were killed, the world’s worst commercial air accident since 2001, and Air France’s deadliest plane crash.
The bodies of two male passengers were recovered Saturday morning about 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of where Air France Flight 447 emitted its last signals — roughly 400 miles (640 kilometers) northeast of the Fernando de Noronha islands off Brazil’s northern coast.
Brazilian air force spokesman Col. Jorge Amaral said an Air France ticket was found inside a leather briefcase.
“It was confirmed with Air France that the ticket number corresponds to a passenger on the flight,” he said.
Admiral Edison Lawrence said the bodies were being transported to the Fernando de Noronha islands for identification. A backpack with a laptop and a vaccination card also was recovered.
The finds could potentially establish a more precise search area for the crucial black box flight recorders that could tell investigators why the jet crashed.
Finding the flight data and voice recorders, however, is not the concern of the Brazilian searchers, who don’t have the deepwater submersibles needed to find the black boxes. Those are being provided by France.
“The black box is not the responsibility of this operation, the aim of which is the search for survivors, bodies and debris — in that sequence of priority,” said Air Force Col. Henry Munhoz.
The discovery of the bodies and debris gave relief to some family members, many of whom gathered in a hotel in Rio, where they’ve received constant updates about the search.
Others, however, refused to give up on the chance for survivors.
“We’re shaken, but we still have hope,” Sonia Gagliano, whose grandson Lucas Gagliano was an air steward on the flight, told the O Globo newspaper. “He was a young boy, just 23 years old, and he spoke eight languages. I’m in a complete daze with all this.”
Investigators have been searching a zone of several hundred square miles (square kilometers) for debris. A blue plane seat with a serial number on it has been recovered, but officials were still trying to confirm with Air France that it was a seat belonging to Flight 477.
The French accident investigation agency, BEA, found the plane received inconsistent airspeed readings from different instruments as it struggled in a massive thunderstorm.
The investigation is increasingly focused on whether external instruments may have iced over, confusing speed sensors and leading computers to set the plane’s speed too fast or slow — a potentially deadly mistake in severe turbulence.
Airbus recommended that all its airline customers replace instruments that help measure speed and altitude, known as Pitot tubes, on the A330, the model used for Flight 447, said Paul-Louis Arslanian, the head of the agency.
“They hadn’t yet been replaced” on the plane that crashed, said Alain Bouillard, head of the French investigation.
Air France issued a statement Saturday saying it began replacing the monitors on the Airbus A330 model on April 27 after an improved version became available.
The statement stressed the recommendation to change the monitor “allows the operator full freedom to totally, partially or not at all apply it.” When safety is at issue, the aircraft maker puts out a mandatory service bulletin followed up by an airworthiness directive, not a recommendation.
The Air France statement said that icing of the monitors at high altitude has led at times to loss of needed flying information, but only a “small number” of incidents linked to the monitors had been reported.
Air France has already replaced the Pitots on another Airbus model, the 320, after its pilots reported similar problems with the instrument, according to an Air France air safety report filed by pilots in January and obtained by The Associated Press.
The report followed an incident in which an Air France flight from Tokyo to Paris reported problems with its airspeed indicators similar to those believed to have been encountered by Flight 447. In that case, the Pitot tubes were found to have been blocked by ice.
The same report says Air France decided to increase the inspection frequency for its A330 and A340 jets’ Pitot tubes, but that it had been waiting for a recommendation from Airbus before installing new Pitots.
Arslanian of the BEA cautioned that it is too early to draw conclusions about the role of Pitot tubes in the crash, saying that “it does not mean that without replacing the Pitots that the A330 was dangerous.”
He told a news conference at the agency’s headquarters near Paris that the crash of Flight 447 does not mean similar planes are unsafe, adding that he told family members not to worry about flying.
As part of their investigation, officials are relying on 24 messages the plane sent automatically during the last minutes of the flight.
The signals show the plane’s autopilot was not on, officials said, but it was not clear if the autopilot had been switched off by the pilots or had stopped working because it received conflicting airspeed readings.
The flight disappeared nearly four hours after takeoff.
The head of France’s weather forecasting agency, Alain Ratier, said weather conditions at the time of the flight were not exceptional for the time of the year and region, which is known for violent stormy weather.
On Thursday, European plane maker Airbus sent an advisory to all operators of the A330 reminding them of how to handle the plane in conditions similar to those experienced by Flight 447.
Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that advisory and the Air France memo about replacing flight-speed instruments “certainly raises questions about whether the Pitot tubes, which are critical to the pilot’s understanding of what’s going on, were operating effectively.”
Arslanian said it is vital to locate a small beacon called a “pinger” that should be attached to the cockpit voice and data recorders, now presumed to be deep in the Atlantic.
“We have no guarantee that the pinger is attached to the recorders,” he said.
Holding up a pinger in the palm of his hand, he said: “This is what we are looking for in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”