France plane crash: black boxes found, no survivors expected

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“A picture of horror.”

That’s how German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the site where a Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crashed in the French Alps on Tuesday.

“The grief of the families and loved ones is immeasurable,” Steinmeier said, after flying over the area in the Alps in southeastern France. “We must stand with them. We are all united in great grief.”

Flight 9525 took off just after 10 a.m. Tuesday from Barcelona, Spain, for Dusseldorf, Germany, with 144 passengers — among them two babies — and six crew members. It went down at 10:53 a.m. (5:53 a.m. ET) in a remote area near Digne-les-Bains in the Alpes de Haute Provence region.

All aboard are presumed dead.

Helicopter crews found the airliner in pieces, none of them bigger than a small car, and human remains strewn for several hundred meters, according to Gilbert Sauvan, a high-level official in the Alpes de Haute Provence region who is being briefed on the operation.

Authorities were not able to retrieve any bodies Tuesday, with the frozen ground complicating the effort. Wednesday may not be much easier, with snow in the forecast.

Spanish and German officials moved to join hundreds of French firefighters and police in the area, working together to help in the recovery effort and try to figure out exactly what happened.

One of the aircraft’s data recorders, the so-called black boxes, has been found, according to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, but it was too early to tell what it would say about the crash.

“We don’t know much about the flight and the crash yet,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “And we don’t know the cause.”

Germanwings started in 2002 and was taken over by Lufthansa seven years later as its low-cost airline, handling an increasing number of mid-range flights around Europe.

It was forced to cancel some flights Tuesday because there were crews that didn’t want to fly upon hearing news of the crash.

Students, teachers among the victims

There were about 150 people aboard the Germanwings plane when it crashed in the French Alps.

Spain’s King Felipe VI said “high numbers of Spaniards, Germans and Turks” were on the aircraft. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said it’s likely British nationals were on the plane, but officials have yet to confirm how many were aboard.

Weeping relatives arrived throughout the day at Barcelona’s airport, where a terminal was blocked off for them. Medics and psychologists were in private space to assist families.

Here’s what we know about the victims and their nationalities so far:

  • Germany

There were at least 67 Germans on board, Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann said. But he cautioned that figure could change.

Sixteen students and two teachers from Haltern, Germany, were on the plane, Winkelmann said. The German students were returning home after spending a week at the Giola Institute, in the town of Llinars del Valles, near Barcelona.

The Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona said that two German opera singers who performed there this month in a production of “Siegfried,” Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner, had perished in the crash.

  • Colombia

Two Colombian nationals, María del Pilar Tejada, a 36-year-old architect who was working in Equatorial Guinea, and Luis Eduardo Medrano, a 33-year-old economist, lost their lives on the flight, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said.

  • Australia

At least two Australians were killed, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said. They are still trying to determine if more Australians were on board.

“Sadly, I can confirm that there were two Australian citizens onboard, a mother and her adult son from Victoria,” Bishop said.

  • The Netherlands

The Dutch foreign ministry said there was at least one Dutch national on board.

  • Belgium

Belgium’s foreign ministry said one Belgian national was on the plane.

  • Argentina

Two Argentines were aboard the plane, the state-run Telam news agency reported, citing consular officials.

Mountainous terrain

The valley where the plane went down is long and snow-covered, and access is difficult, said the mayor of the nearby town of Barcelonnette, Pierre Martin-Charpenel. It was well populated in the 19th century but there are almost no people living there now, he said.

The sports hall of a local school has been freed up to take in bodies of the victims of the plane crash, said Sandrine Julien from the town hall of Seyne-les-Alpes village.

Mountain guide Yvan Theaudin told BFMTV the crash was in the area of the Massif des Trois Eveches, where there are peaks of nearly 3,000 meters (1.9 miles).

It’s very snowy in the area and the weather is worsening, he said, which could complicate search and rescue efforts. Responders may have to use skis to reach the crash site on the ground, he said.

A mountain guide who heard a plane fly at alarmingly low altitude shortly before the crash, Michel Suhubiette, said helicopters may be the only way to get to the crash site.

Plane dropped 27,000 feet in 8 minutes, tracker shows

According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, just under 16 percent of aviation accidents occur during the cruise portion of a flight — meaning after the climb and before descent. Accidents are more common during takeoff and landing.

The twin-engine Airbus A320s, which entered service in 1988, is generally considered among the most reliable aircraft, aviation analyst David Soucie said.

The captain of the crashed plane had flown for Germanwings for more than 10 years, and had more than 6,000 flight hours on this model of Airbus. The plane itself dates to 1991 and was last checked in Dusseldorf on Monday, according to Winkelmann.

So what happened? CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo said the plane’s speed is one clue.

According to an online flight tracker that records altitude, the plane was at 38,000 feet, and eight minutes later had dropped to 11,400 feet. The plane’s speed dropped during the descent, from 551 mph to 480 mph.

This could indicate that there was not a stall, but that the pilot was still controlling the plane to some extent, Schiavo said. Had there been an engine stall, the plane would have crashed in a matter of minutes, she said. Rather, the pilot could have been trying to make an emergency landing, or the plane was gliding with the pilot’s guidance.

Merkel: ‘Think of the victims’

The crash spurred officials in several countries to offer their condolences and pledge solidarity and cooperation to help those affected and determine what happened.

“Our thoughts and our prayers are with our friends in Europe, especially the people of Germany and Spain, following the terrible airplane crash in France,” U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters. “It’s particularly heartbreaking because it apparently includes the loss of so many children, some of them infants.”

Germany’s Merkel said she was sending two ministers to France on Tuesday and would travel to the crash site on Wednesday to see it for herself.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the German government had set up a crisis center in response to the “terrible news” and was in close contact with the French authorities.