THREE young Irish doctors flying home from a holiday with friends are among the 228 feared dead after an Air France plane went missing in a violent storm over the Atlantic.
The ill-fated Airbus A330 aircraft flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris early yesterday disappeared after it was struck by lightning when it ran into stormy weather with strong turbulence around four hours into the flight.
It is understood the three Irish friends, all in their 20s, graduated together from the same class as doctors in surgery from Trinity College on June 15, 2007.
Sources last night named them as Dr Jane Deasy (22), from Rathgar in Dublin, Dr Aisling Butler (22), from Roscrea, Co Tipperary, and Dr Eithne Walls, a former Irish dancing star and member of the famous 'Riverdance' troupe.
The heartbroken father of Aisling Butler last night said he couldn't describe his family's grief.
"We know Aisling is gone, we are sure of that," John Butler said. "It is just about trying to live now, I have to live for my wife and my only other daughter Lorna."
It is understood that Dr Walls, in her late twenties, is originally from Ballygowan in Co Down and had lived in Waterford.
It is understood she had been living in Dublin and worked as a doctor in an ear nose and throat hospital.
It is believed her father, Raymond, is the director of well-known business Micwall Developments.
Julian Erskine, executive producer of 'Riverdance', last night described Ms Walls as a long-standing member of the dance troupe who was well-known and liked by the cast.
"They're all devastated. She was a very popular and talented member of the troupe," he told the Irish Independent.
After travelling from Brazil to Paris with a Welsh companion after visiting a friend, the three were due to make an onward connection yesterday on an Air France flight to Dublin.
Their heartbroken families learned of the devastating news last night.
As soon as officials realised the plane had failed to arrive in France, gardai at Santry station near Dublin Airport were contacted and the families alerted.
They were being offered assistance by the Department of Foreign Affairs last night.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen expressed solidarity with the grieving families after the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed three Irish nationals were on board.
"Our primary concern is for their families during this difficult time. The Government is offering support to the families as they wait on news of their loved ones," he said.
"Many other families in Europe and in Brazil also have an anxious wait and our thoughts are also with them."
Air France said last night it was unlikely anyone survived.
The airline confirmed the 216 passengers comprised 126 men, 82 women, seven children and one infant. The 12 flight crew members were made up of three pilots and nine flight attendants.
"It is a catastrophe the likes of which Air France has never seen," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after meeting relatives and friends of passengers at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
It is understood Flight AF447 got into difficulties around four hours into its journey from Brazil when it encountered thunderstorms.
About 15 minutes after the turbulence message, an automatic message was received from the plane indicating some sort of failure in electrical circuits.
Brazilian air force planes began a search for the aircraft which left Rio at 11.03pm Irish time On Sunday and had been due to arrive at Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport at around 10.15am Irish time yesterday.
Air France said the plane could have been struck by lightning. Aviation experts said turbulence and electrical problems were most unlikely to bring down a large passenger plane, while aircraft were well protected against lightning strikes.
Air France expressed its "deepest sympathy" to the relatives and friends of the 216 passengers and 12 crew and was providing support for them, including counselling at the airport.