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Originally published Sunday, July 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Sailor recounts girl's rescue after plane crash

Doe Cyrille and his crew searched for hours in high winds and waves up to 16 feet high for a sign of Yemenia Flight 626. Then they spotted a...

The Associated Press

MORONI, Comoros — Doe Cyrille and his crew searched for hours in high winds and waves up to 16 feet high for a sign of Yemenia Flight 626. Then they spotted a girl impossibly clinging to a piece of debris.

Cyrille, a merchant marine from Madagascar, had been heading with a team of rescuers toward a distress signal after the plane crashed Tuesday in the Indian Ocean off the coast of this former French colony.

Bahia Bakari, 12, was the only survivor. The other 152 people on board — including Bahia's mother — are presumed dead.

In a handwritten report, Cyrille writes that the crew saw a girl "trying to get onto a piece of wood or plastic." A member of the rescue team threw a life preserver to the girl, but the waters were too rough for her to catch it.

One of the sailors, Libouna Maturaffe Soulemane — who had completed a rescue course six months earlier — jumped into the sea with a flotation device and reached out to Bahia.

"When I saw the girl, I was not afraid to dive in," Soulemane said. "She was calm. ... She knew what she was doing," said Soulemane. "The girl is very courageous."

The crew aboard Sima Com 2 threw the life buoy again toward Soulemane and the girl, and pulled them to the boat.

Cyrille's report said Bahia survived at sea for more than nine hours, while French officials have estimated it was 13 hours.

Once on board, Maj. Said Ali Madi, a gendarme at the port of Moroni who was on board Sima Com 2, asked Bahia to remove her clothes so they could give her something dry to wear, says Soulemane.

But the shy girl refused.

Madi then began cutting away bits of her clothing as crew members wrapped her with two beige bed covers and a curtain.

Cyrille sailed the Sima Com 2 back to Port Moroni and handed over Bahia to medical authorities.

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Apart from hypothermia, she suffered a fractured collarbone and bruises to her face, elbow and foot.

Bahia returned to France aboard a French government plane on Thursday and is hospitalized in Paris.

The Sima Com 2 is a privately owned ship that normally transports passengers between Comoros and the neighboring island of Madagascar. When the Yemenia flight disappeared, the Comoros government demanded all ships at Moroni port search for the plane since the government does not have any ships of its own.

Ships and military planes continue to search for survivors, bodies and wreckage.

On Saturday, a Yemeni aviation committee overseeing the investigation said divers have recovered pieces of the fuselage of the Airbus 310 and that Yemeni, French and Comoran officials listened to the communication between the control tower and the flight before it went down, but gave no details.

After days of protests by Comorans in France against the airline, Yemenia ordered its flights to Comoros suspended. Protesters claim the aircraft are unsafe.

In France on Saturday, at least 10,000 people held a silent homage in the city of Marseille for the 152 victims of the crash. Marching behind a black banner, many of the protesters alleged that dangerous planes — or "flying garbage cans" — are used by the airline.

Sixty-one of the people who died in Tuesday's crash of the flight from Paris to Moroni were from Marseille, many of them Comorans.

Many in France's Comoran community are angry it took the accident to focus attention on what they claim are dangerous conditions on the flight path to the Indian Ocean island nation, unsafe planes, unhelpful crews and stopovers in Yemen's capital San'a that can last hours or days in stifling heat.

At a news conference in Moroni on Saturday, Yemen's transport minister, Nabil al-Fakeh, said the crash was the airline's first accident and that people should wait for the investigation results before drawing conclusions.

"It is not fair to say that Yemenia is not taking care of safety," said al-Fakeh.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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