BAMAKO, Mali — The two black boxes from the recent Air Algérie crash in northern Mali have been retrieved with the help of the United Nations mission in the country, officials from the Algerian and Malian governments told the media just days after the crash happened, killing everyone on board.
The press conference was held July 27 at the international airport in Mali’s capital, Bamako, on the day before the Muslim holy day Eid al-Fitr. At the airport, the transportation ministers from Mali and Algeria presented the black boxes to the press, holding them aloft: wrapped in clear plastic with blue tape like a package, the ordinary looking square shapes, each about the dimensions of a laptop, belied the information that might be held within.
The UN mission, called Minusma (the French acronym for the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), is credited with locating one of the boxes, and it also helped arrange the transport of the boxes to Bamako, a Minusma spokesman said. The crash site is being secured by Dutch and other peacekeeping units from Gao, with Minusma providing generators and freezers to enable work at the site.
At the press briefing, Sebastian Bartolucci, an Argentinian who is a maintenance coordinator for Swiftair, the Spanish company that operates some flights for Air Algérie (including the one that crashed) through a lease agreement, offered more information in an interview at the Bamako airport on what may have occurred. Swiftair also operates jets for the UN’s mission in South Sudan, Bartolucci said.
The boxes, Bartolucci added, are in “bad shape” because of the impact of the crash. He said it was unclear if any information could be derived from them to resolve the cause of the crash. The French government has suggested that bad weather might have caused the accident. Six crew members (hired by Swiftair) and 110 passengers were killed, Bartolucci said; 54 of them were French nationals.
The plane was flying from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, south of Mali, to Algiers. The black boxes were retrieved in a hard-to-reach region of the Sahara desert, hours off the main road to the closest major city, Gao, where Minusma and Malian and French military have bases to secure the region from Islamic jihadists threatening the area. The perimeter of the crash site has been secured by the French military, and officials were helicoptered to the site because of a lack of roads, making it difficult for journalists to report immediately on the news firsthand. The French civil aviation authority will lead the investigation of the crash from Paris, the French embassy in Mali reported.
The leading cause appears to have been a “vertical development,” Bartolucci said, resembling a thunderstorm. During July and August, these types of weather patterns are the norm for the region, where temperatures can soar easily above 100 degrees. Bartolucci said that pilots try to avoid these storms by going around them, deviating from normal flight plans, but even navigating around or above them can mean flying into another such cell, or air pocket.
“It is the most challenging weather at this time of year in this region,” he said, as the cells can rise as high as 50,000 feet. More recent developments contend that the pilots asked to return back to Ouagadougou before they lost contact and crashed.
Flags on government buildings across France were flown at half-mast for three days starting from Monday to show respect for the grieving families.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.