RECIFE, Brazil – A Brazilian ship recovered three more bodies from the Atlantic as searchers said weather and currents complicated their job and warned it is unlikely that all the dead from Air France Flight 447 will be found.
Forty-four bodies have been recovered from the Airbus 330 that crashed into the sea May 31 en route from Brazil to Paris. Bad weather continued over the search area on Friday.
Authorities hope identifying the victims — and determining where they were sitting — will help them determine whether a midair breakup or ocean currents alone account for the large distance across which the bodies were found.
Brazilian Air Force Gen. Ramon Cardoso said storms and poor visibility have been hindering an aerial search for remnants of the plane.
Currents that had been carrying bodies and debris toward the West African nation of Senegal were reversing and could bring them closer to Brazilian and French searchers, but the recovery effort covers a vast area, Cardoso said.
"It is becoming more and more difficult to find and recover bodies," he said. "And the chances of recovering the bodies of all the passengers of the Air France flight are very remote."
Brazil's military will decide next week whether to halt the search for bodies on June 19 or extend it for another six days.
Searchers were using the French nuclear submarine Emeraude to probe the deep sea floor for the "black box" recorders that might give the best idea of what happened to Flight 447. U.S. military equipment capable of picking up signals 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) deep will arrive at the scene within days.
A burst of 24 automatic messages that the plane sent during its final minutes of flight show the autopilot was not on, but it was not clear if it was switched off by the pilots or stopped working due to conflicting airspeed readings, perhaps caused by iced-over speed sensors.
Peter Goelz, former managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, said the evidence uncovered so far pointed to at least a partial midair breakup of the Airbus A330.
Flight 447 was packed with 228 people and the passengers were likely in their assigned seats as the jet flew into heavy storms, he said.
"If the victims found in one part of the ocean mostly came from one part of the plane, and the victims in the other area came from another part of the plane, that is really telling you something," he said — perhaps what parts of the plane broke apart in the air.
Coroners in the northeastern coastal city of Recife began examining 16 bodies Thursday, hoping to identify them through DNA and photos. The other bodies would be flown in Friday from the Brazilian islands of Fernando de Noronha, where they were taken by search ships.
The first bodies found Saturday, six days after the crash, were recovered about 53 miles (85 kilometers) from bodies recovered later, Brazil's military said.
Investigators will calculate how far currents averaging about 5 mph (8 kph) carried the bodies before they were picked up, said John Goglia, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Finding those bodies that far away or that separate from the debris field is a very important clue, and could indicate a midair breakup or at least that the cabin was opened up," he said.
Goelz said damage to the larger pieces of debris fished from the ocean also may tell experts where the plane broke apart and perhaps why — by forces in the air or by impact with the sea.
So far, investigators have focused on the possibility that external speed monitors — Pitot tubes — iced over and gave false readings to the plane's computers.
Air France ordered Pitot tubes replaced on the long-range Airbus planes on April 27 after pilots noted a loss of airspeed data in a few flights on Airbus A330 and A340 models, he said.
Those incidents were "not catastrophic" and planes with the old Pitots are considered airworthy, Gourgeon said.
French and U.S. officials have said there were no signs of terrorism, and Brazil's defense minister said the possibility wasn't considered. But France said that had not been ruled out.