Rescuers hunting for a Chilean air force plane that went missing as it headed for Antarctica with 38 people aboard have recovered floating debris that may be from the C-130”s fuel tanks, the military said Wednesday.
The Chilean-flagged 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 press conference.
The wreckage was located 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the plane”s last known position when it disappeared from radar screens at 6:13 pm (2130 GMT) on Monday.
The C-130 Hercules cargo plane had been heading to Chile”s Eduardo Frei base, officials said.
“We are going to carry out corresponding checks and when we get the sponges here, we are going to be able to determine if they really are from the C-130,” Mosquiera said in Punta Arenas, the plane”s departure point.
He said the recovered pieces of wreckage would reach Punta Arenas “tomorrow or in the next few days.” Search vessels and planes from the United States, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile were combing nearly 1,000 square kilometers (385 square miles) around the plane”s last known position in the Drake Passage, a tempestuous body of water south of Cape Horn and north of Antarctica.
Mosquiera said earlier that a decision had been taken to widen the search zone as visibility and conditions were favourable.
“We still don”t have any new information, but we are making every effort to be able to find the plane,” government spokeswoman Karla Rubilar told Chilean radio earlier Wednesday.
The Vatican said Pope Francis was following the situation closely and keeping the families of the missing in his prayers.
Family members were gathering in Punta Arenas, 3,000 kilometers south of the capital Santiago, to be close to the rescue effort.
Most of those on the missing plane are 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 traveling to carry out logistical support tasks — including work on a floating fuel pipeline and anti-corrosive treatment of machinery and other facilities at the base, Chile”s largest in the Antarctic.