Brazilian navy divers rushed on Wednesday to reach the wreckage of an Air France jet and start the grim job of pulling debris from the Atlantic Ocean, where the plane with 228 people went down in the airline's worst disaster in its 75-year history.
Four navy ships with recovery equipment and a tanker were headed to a 3-mile (5 km) strip of water strewn with airplane seats, an orange buoy, wiring, hunks of metal and jet fuel stains about 745 miles (1,200 km) northeast of the coastal city of Recife.
Rear Admiral Domingos Nogueira said the navy was battling tough weather as officials predicted the hardest task would be finding the flight data and voice recorders that hold clues to why the plane fell out of the sky during a severe storm in the middle of the night.
Distraught relatives who had prayed for a miracle gave up hope as experts were certain that all aboard died on the flight, which left Rio de Janeiro on Sunday night bound for Paris.
So far no bodies have been sighted on flyovers by the air force, which spotted evidence of the catastrophe on Tuesday, allowing the navy to mount a retrieval operation.
"The ships are equipped to arrive and pick up pieces of the Airbus," Nogueira said. "Each ship has two divers on board and smaller ships to throw into the ocean to try and get pieces."
Helicopters would then be used to take wreckage of the Airbus A330 from the ships to a base on the Brazilian archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, 430 miles (700 km) from the crash site.
Officials said the recorders needed to identify the causes of the mysterious crash could be on the ocean floor at a depth of 6,600 to 9,800 feet (2,000 to 3,000 meters).
The recorders are designed to send homing signals for up to 30 days when they hit water but many do not float well.
One expert said it could be among the hardest recoveries since the decades-long search to find the Titanic.
The ships are equipped to arrive and pick up pieces of the Airbus. Each ship has two divers on board and smaller ships to throw into the ocean to try and get pieces
Rear Admiral Domingos Noguera
Detection of black boxes
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said he was confident that the black boxes would be located.
"I think a country that can find oil 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) under the ocean can find a plane 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) down," he told reporters on Tuesday in Guatemala, referring to recent oil finds by Brazil's state energy company in ultra-deep waters.
Brazil on Tuesday announced three days of national mourning for those who perished on the Air France plane. Catholic and Muslim services were to be held in Paris on Wednesday, including one in Notre-Dame cathedral to be attended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Officials from France have arrived in Brazil to lead the investigation with help from Brazilian teams.
I think a country that can find oil 6,000 meters (19,685 feet) under the ocean can find a plane 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) down
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
Brazil's air force last had contact with Flight AF 447 at 0133 GMT on Monday when it was 350 miles (565 km) from its coast. The last automated signals, which reported an electrical failure, were received about 40 minutes later.
More than half of those traveling on the Air France jet were either French or Brazilian. The others came from 30 countries, mostly in Europe.
The 216 passengers included 126 men, 82 women, seven children and a baby. The crew comprised 11 French nationals and one Brazilian.
The 58-year-old French captain had been flying for Air France since 1988 and had a great deal of experience, the airline said.
Authorities were at a loss to explain how a storm could have caused the plane, operated by three experienced pilots, to crash without sending a mayday call.
One theory is that a lightning strike or brutal weather set off a series of failures. But lightning routinely hits planes and could not alone explain the downing, aviation specialists said.
Other theories advanced by experts include pilot error, mechanical defects or even the remote possibility of terrorism.
"No hypothesis is being favored at the moment," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Tuesday.
"Our only certainty is that there was no distress call sent by the plane, but regular automatic alerts sent over three minutes indicated the failure of all systems," he said.
Fox News reported Wednesday that the Brazilian authorities had reportedly delayed an Air France flight from Buenos Aires to Paris after the airline received a bomb threat over the phone, just days before the mysterious crash of Flight 447 over the Atlantic Ocean.
No hypothesis is being favored at the moment. Our only certainty is that there was no distress call sent by the plane, but regular automatic alerts sent over three minutes indicated the failure of all systems
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon
Police and airport officials spent 90 minutes inspecting the threatened plane for explosives on the evening of May 27 at Buenos Aires' Ezeiza Airport, but found nothing. During the search, passengers were not evacuated from the jet and later safely arrived at their destination in Paris.
Two Lufthansa jets believed to have been in the same area half an hour before the Air France mishap could provide clues for investigators, the World Meteorological Organization said.
A French ship was on its way to the zone, carrying two mini-submarines capable of operating at depths of 6,2D0 meters (19,72D feet), which is also the limit aircraft black boxes can survive for up to 30 days.
But any recovery would be extremely tricky, not only because of the depth, but also because of powerful currents and storms in the zone.