Tributes have been paid to a young Riverdance star from Northern Ireland who is feared dead after an Air France plane carrying 228 people from Brazil to France vanished over the Atlantic.
Dr Eithne Walls, who was in her 20s and from Ballygowan, Co Down, had been dancing for over 20 years and had scooped medals in competitions at Ulster, All-Ireland, American, national and world championships.
She was last night described as “a beautiful and intelligent young girl who seemed destined to achieve great things in everything she did”.
It is understood she had been living in Dublin and worked as a doctor in an ear, nose and throat hospital.
She had been travelling back with a group of friends on the Airbus A330 aircraft from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.
Sources last night named them as Dr Jane Deasy from Rathgar in Dublin and Dr Aisling Butler from Roscrea, Co Tipperary.
The plane ran into stormy weather with strong turbulence around four hours into the flight.
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About 15 minutes after the turbulence message, an automatic message was received from the plane — AF447 — indicating a failure in the electrical circuit.
Brazilian Air Force planes are searching for the missing aircraft which Air France said could have been struck by lightning.
All of the passengers are feared dead.
It is understood Ms Walls’ father Raymond senior, mother Mary — a retired primary school principal — and siblings Gerard, Raymond junior and Katherine live in the Co Down village of Ballygowan.
It is believed Mr Walls senior is the director of well-known business Micwall Developments.
Eithne — who had attended Assumption Grammar — had joined Riverdance after retiring from competition in 2000 and had performed in Broadway and New York. However, she then left to study medicine at Trinity College, Dublin.
But her love of dancing continued while at university and performed as a member of the Riverdance ‘flying squad’ in China, Qatar, Germany and France.
A family friend told the Belfast Telegraph: “Everyone in Ballygowan and the Darragh Cross area is totally stunned by this news.
“Eithne was a beautiful and intelligent young girl who seemed destined to achieve great things in everything she did.”
Alliance councillor Jim McBriar said the news has shocked the Ballygowan area.
“The whole community is just stunned by the news. It has come as a terrible shock,” he said.
“The Walls family are very well known and respected in the area. I understand Eithne is a doctor and danced in Riverdance for a number of years. My thoughts go out to them.”
Ms Walls and her two Irish friends were travelling along with a fourth woman, a British national from Wales.
It is understood that Miss Walls had been due to take a connecting flight from Paris back to Dublin today.
Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, where the missing plane was destined for, is a popular hub for Irish travellers using the CityJet services from Dublin and Shannon to the French capital.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen said his government was deeply concerned and wanted to express its solidarity with families who are anxiously waiting for news of loved ones.
“Our primary concern is for the families during this difficult time,” he said. “The government is offering support to the families as they await news of their loved ones.”
Also among the passengers are a baby and seven children.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said there was a “very small” chance of finding survivors.
Nationalities of missing passengers
The nationalities of the 216 passengers on missing Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, according to Air France are:
- 61 French
- 58 Brazilians
- 26 Germans
- 9 Chinese
- 9 Italians
- 6 Swiss
- 5 British
- 5 Lebanese
- 4 Hungarians
- 3 Irish
- 3 Norwegians
- 3 Slovaks
- 2 Americans
- 2 Moroccans
- 2 Spanish
- 2 Polish
- 1 Argentine
- 1 Austrian
- 1 Belgian
- 1 Canadian
- 1 Croat
- 1 Danish
- 1 Dutch
- 1 Estonian
- 1 Filipino
- 1 Gambian
- 1 Icelander
- 1 Romanian
- 1 Russian
- 1 South African
- 1 Swede
- 1 Turk