Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil -- The Brazilian air force announced today it had located debris in the Atlantic Ocean that could be from an Air France jetliner that disappeared Sunday with 228 people on board.
Brazilian government spokesmen said one of the many military aircraft involved in a search-and-rescue mission spotted a seat, an orange-colored buoy, a tank and a fuel slick about 400 miles northeast of Fernando de Noronha, an island off Brazil's coast.
Air France Flight 447, which departed Rio de Janeiro on Sunday night for Paris, disappeared after flying through turbulence and sending an automatic alert of an electric short circuit. But the pilots sent no verbal alerts before the plane vanished.
The debris still had not been positively identified as coming from the Airbus A330 as of late this afternoon. Three merchant ships in the area at the time of the crash, including the Dutch vessel Lexa Maersk, had joined in the search, Brazilian air force Col. Jorge Amaral said.
"We can't confirm it's from the Air France aircraft. We first need to collect a piece with the serial number and identification before we can say it is from the Air France airplane," Amaral said.
Air France officials warned Monday that a "catastrophic" crash might have occurred, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he gave the same message to family members of those on board who were awaiting word at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport.
The chance of finding survivors now "is very, very small, even nonexistent," Jean-Louis Borloo, the French environment minister, told a radio reporter today.
Air France still had not released the passenger list today. However, Brazilian media had compiled a partial list using information from relatives, friends and employers that matched early reports that the 216 passengers and 12 crew members were predominantly Brazilian and French. Air France said it would publish the entire list Wednesday.
At least two Americans reportedly were on board: Michael Harris, a geologist who worked in Rio for Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy Corp., and his wife, Ann.
Harris, 60, and his wife were headed to Europe for work and vacation, a Devon spokesman said today. Harris had planned to attend seminars in Barcelona, Spain, and take time off in Paris, said the spokesman, Chip Minty.
According to unofficial lists, passengers aboard also included Erich Heine, head of ThyssenKrupp Steel in Brazil, which is building a $3-billion steel factory near Rio; Luiz Roberto Anastacio, head of Michelin in Latin America; and Marco Mendonca, a top executive at major iron ore producer Vale.
Pedro Luiz de Orleans e Braganca, heir to the former Brazilian royal family that has been out of power since 1889, also was on board.
A Brazilian aircraft's radar detected the debris at 1 a.m. today. The sea is more than two miles deep, which could make recovery of the aircraft's fuselage or flight recorders complicated, officials said. France said it would send a ship capable of deploying unmanned submarines for deep-water exploration.
Amaral said the location of the debris, slightly off the scheduled flight path, might indicate the Air France pilot had attempted to make a turn, but cautioned it was only a supposition.
The aircraft involved in the search reported cloud cover and storms, complicating the efforts. On Monday night, a French merchant ship went to the area where a Brazilian commercial airliner's crew had reported seeing what looked like small fires on the ocean surface, but found nothing.
Five Brazilian navy ships were scheduled to arrive in the area by tonight. The Pentagon sent a P-3 surveillance aircraft and 21-member rescue crew to assist in the search, responding to a request from the French government.
The American plane and crew arrived in Brazil today from the Comalapa air base in El Salvador, where they were involved in an antidrug mission. The French have also requested U.S. satellite imagery to assist in the search.
The Brazilian government has deployed five aircraft, including the low-flying, propeller-driven Hercules aircraft, over the Atlantic to try to find traces of the missing airliner. The northeastern coastal city of Natal has become the base for much of the search-and-rescue operations.
Authorities have few clues to go on as to the cause of the crash. One theory is that the jet was struck by lightning. The website Accuweather.com reported today that weather information from Fernando de Noronha island suggested the updrafts from the thunderstorms through which the jetliner passed might have reached up to 100 mph, which "would lead to severe turbulence for any aircraft."
A terrorist attack has not been ruled out, though officials seem to discount the possibility. French Defense Minister Herve Morin said "we have no signs so far" of terrorism, but all hypotheses must be studied.
The airliner's crew had logged thousands of flying hours, and the Airbus A330 model jetliner has a good safety record. The plane was cruising at an altitude of about 30,000 feet at 500 mph when it lost contact.
France's junior minister for transport, Dominique Bussereau, said the plane sent "a kind of outburst" of automated messages just before it disappeared, "which means something serious happened, as eventually the circuits switched off."
If the plane did crash with no survivors, as is feared, it would be the worst air disaster since 2003, when an Iranian airliner went down, killing 302 people. In November 2001, an American Airlines jet crashed in Queens, N.Y., killing 265 people.
Soares and Kraul are special correspondents. The Associated Press contributed to this report.