PARIS: A French court on Wednesday will issue its verdict on involuntary homicide charges against Yemenia Airways over a 2009 crash that killed 152 people – but miraculously left a 12-year-old girl alive.
The Yemeni national airline faces a maximum fine of 225,000 euros ($225,000) if found guilty of insufficient pilot training that led to fatal mistakes by the crew onboard, as prosecutors have alleged.
On June 29, 2009, flight Yemenia 626 was on approach to Moroni, the capital of the Comoros islands that lie between Mozambique and Madagascar, after departing from the airport in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
France’s overseas territory of Mayotte is also part of the Comoros archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Africa.
Among the 142 passengers and 11 crew were 66 French citizens.
Just before 11:00 pm the Airbus A310 plunged into the Indian Ocean with its engines running at full throttle, killing everyone on board except Bahia Bakari, then just 12 years old.
“I started to feel the turbulence, but nobody was reacting much, so I told myself it must be normal,” Bakari told a Paris courtroom in May during the trial, attended by dozens of friends and relatives of the victims.
Suddenly “I felt something like an electric shock go through my body,” she recalled, before blacking out and then finding herself in the water among the wreckage.
She had left Paris to attend a wedding in the Comoros with her mother, who perished in the crash.
Series of errors?
Investigators and experts found 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”.
According to analyses of the “black box” flight data recorders found on the ocean floor several weeks later, a series of erroneous decisions was made by pilots over nearly five minutes before the crash.
No one from Yemenia Airways appeared at the trial, where prosecutors accused the company of pilot training programmes “riddled with gaps” and of continuing to fly to Moroni at night despite several non-functioning landing lights.
Yemenia is charged with involuntary homicide and injuries. The company’s lawyers have denied any wrongdoing, saying the airline is being made a “scapegoat”.
Around 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.
Several people aboard were travelling to the Comoros to celebrate the islands’ extravagant wedding parties, which often bring together entire villages.
“It’s an entire community that was on this plane,” a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, Claude Lienhard, said during the trial.