191213 Chile
Handout picture released by the Chilean Air Force in Punta Arenas, Chile, on December 12, 2019, showing landing gear of the C-130 Hercules transport plane, which disappeared late Monday with 38 people on board, recovered from the sea by search teams. Image Credit: AFP

Punta Arenas, Chile: Chile confirmed Thursday that human remains and debris found by search ships are from a military plane reported missing with 38 people aboard, and that hopes of finding survivors had all but gone.

“The condition of the plane wreckage that was found makes it practically impossible that there are survivors from this air accident,” Air Force chief Arturo Merino told a news conference in the southern port of Punta Arenas.

Merino, flanked by Defence Minister Alberto Espina and other officials, confirmed reports that remains recovered from the sea were “most likely to be body parts of those traveling on the C-130.”

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Part of the aircraft’s landing gear, fuel system, wing parts and a wheel were among the recovered debris, along with two bags, a backpack and a shoe.

Search teams have been combing waters off the southern tip of South America for any sign of the C-130 Hercules transport plane, which disappeared late Monday.

Thirty-eight people — 21 passengers and 17 crew — were on board the plane headed to the Eduardo Frei base across the Drake Passage in the Antarctic.

Most were air force personnel, but also aboard were three people from the army, two from a private construction company and an official from a Chilean university.

Many of them were travelling to carry out logistical support tasks at the base, Chile’s largest in the Antarctic.

Officials said the debris was located in a 30-square-kilometre area in the Drake Passage, where some 23 aircraft and 14 ships have been concentrating the search effort.

Crash probe

Authorities say they are keeping an open mind as to the cause of the accident.

“When 38 of your compatriots die, the least that can be done is to find the truth,” said Espina.

The plane made no emergency signal prior to its disappearance, indicating the circumstances of the accident were likely abrupt.

“The lack of distress signals or emergency location transmissions of life rafts aboard the aircraft indicates that an event occurred during the flight that was potentially catastrophic in nature,” air industry specialist Stephen Wright from Finland’s Tampere University told AFP.

The maintenance history of the aircraft will also be under intense scrutiny, since it was manufactured in 1978, he said.

“Obtaining most of the structure from the seabed will be the best solution to accurately identify how and why it fell into the sea,” he added.

Meanwhile authorities in Punta Arenas said DNA samples would be requested from family members to help identify victims’ remains as they are brought ashore.

The families have been receiving medical and psychological assistance since Wednesday, when the finding of human remains was first reported.

Human remains

On Wednesday, the governor of Chile’s far southern Megallanes region, Jose Fernandez, said rescuers had found human remains during the search.

“They told us that they had found other airplane debris as well as human remains from those on board,” Fernandez told reporters in provincial capital Punta Arenas, where many family members were gathering to be close to the rescue effort.

His comments came shortly after the air force issued a statement saying that, out of respect for family members, information regarding remains would be “analyzed, validated and communicated” by the air force itself.

Earlier, the Chilean-flagged vessel Antarctic Endeavour located debris that “could be part of the remains of the sponges of the internal fuel tanks,” Air Force Commander Eduardo Mosqueira told a news conference.

He added that the wreckage was located around 16 nautical miles (30 kilometers) from the plane’s last known position when it disappeared from radar screens in the early evening Monday.

A Brazilian navy vessel has also recovered wreckage, some 280 nautical miles from the far southern Argentinian port of Ushuaia, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said on Twitter.

Search vessels and planes from the United States, Uruguay and Argentina were also combing nearly 385 square miles around the plane’s last known position in the Drake Passage, a tempestuous body of water south of Cape Horn.

The Vatican said Pope Francis was following the situation closely and keeping the families of the missing in his prayers.