Salvage crews began scouring debris from an Airbus A320 that crashed in rugged terrain in the French Alps as investigators sought to understand how the plane carrying 150 people was lost en route to Germany from Spain.
There is no hope of finding survivors, according to the French government. Helicopters and local experts on the mountain slopes are assisting police in searching the hard-to-reach area where Germanwings Flight 9525 smashed into the ground. One of the flight recorders has been recovered.
“There’s nothing left, the plane has totally disappeared,” Jean-Louis Bietrix, a guide who joined the rescue teams, told French BFM Television on Tuesday. “There is no single piece to dig up.”
The A320 flown by Deutsche Lufthansa AG’s low-cost unit fell to earth after a rapid descent from cruising altitude while bound for Dusseldorf, Germany, from Barcelona, Spain. There was no communication between ground controllers and the cockpit crew as the plane came down, and no distress signal suggesting a fault or act of terrorism, French and German aviation authorities said.
Investigators are racing to establish the cause of a crash that didn’t follow any typical disaster pattern. The A320 is a reliable and widely used aircraft that was flying straight and level, typically the safest part of a journey, on a busy route in daylight and good weather.
The initial phase of the recovery efforts near Prads-Haute-Bleone in Provence was focused on collecting identification to assist in the recovery of the bodies. The passenger manifest listed a cross-section of Europeans and other nationalities, and Pierre-Henry Brandet, spokesman for the French interior ministry, told BFM Television that Argentinians, Australians, Turks and Britons were among those on board.
European politicians suspended their agendas to coordinate the crisis response, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel planning to travel to the region on Wednesday to witness the salvage mission.
“This is a tragedy that has happened on French soil,” French President Francois Hollande said in Paris. “We need to show all support in the face of this drama.”
It’s too early to speculate on possible causes without more information, said John Cox, the head of aviation safety consultant Safety Operating Systems LLC in Washington. Investigators will examine the debris field to see if the plane came apart in flight or flew into the ground, he said. The size of the wreckage also can be telling, with smaller pieces meaning a higher-speed impact.
“They’re going to be looking for the black boxes very strongly and will listen to the tapes of the radio transmissions and see if there was anything the crew might have said to air traffic control that has not been released,” Cox said. “You look at everything -- the weather, the crew, the maintenance history, the airplane history.”
The A320 single-aisle jet, an industry workhorse used on shorter distances, is the most popular model for Toulouse, France-based Airbus Group NV. The planes are typically configured to seat about 150 passengers. Germanwings said 144 passengers and six crew were on the crashed jet.
French air traffic controllers in the region declared an emergency at 10:47 a.m. as they saw Flight 9525 descending rapidly, said Eric Heraud, a spokesman for French civil aviation authority DGAC. The plane plummeted from 38,000 feet (11,600 meters) to 5,000 feet while flying over the town of Barcelonnette in the Alpes de Haute-Provence region, he said.
Germanwings said contact was lost at 10:53 a.m., less than 10 minutes after the aircraft had reached cruising altitude. Air-traffic controllers didn’t give approval for the descent, Germanwings said at a press conference in Cologne.
The crash is the deadliest on French soil since 1981, when a DC-9 jetliner flown by Slovenia’s Adria Airways went down near Mont San-Pietro and killed 180 people, according to data compiled by Aviation Safety Network, a project of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.
France’s only accident this century even approaching the scope of the Germanwings disaster occurred in 2000, when an Air France Concorde struck runway debris on takeoff and was engulfed in flames, killing all 109 people on the supersonic jet and four on the ground.
German, French and Spanish authorities have set up crisis-response teams, and Hollande said he’s coordinating efforts with Merkel’s government.
Merkel “is deeply shocked by the German aircraft’s crash,” said Steffen Seibert, her chief spokesman. Merkel has canceled other appointments and will keep up-to-date on developments in the hours ahead, he said.
Radar images from Meteo-France showed no showers in the area at 10:45 a.m., minutes before contact was lost. A weather station in Seyne, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the reported crash site, measured average winds of 5 kilometers per hour at 10:50 a.m. with gusts up to 12.9 kilometers per hour, a gentle breeze on the Beaufort scale.
Airbus said it’s focusing “all efforts” on assessing the situation. The A320 has been popular with airlines around the world because it serves the broadest segment of the air-travel market, for short- and medium-haul routes, and is equipped with advanced technologies such as fly-by-wire controls.
Germanwings said the aircraft involved in the accident was delivered to Lufthansa in 1991 and was flown by a pilot with 6,000 hours of experience on Airbus jets. The plane had been serviced last summer and had logged 46,700 flights. The aircraft had flown to Barcelona Tuesday morning, the airline said.
Among the victims, 67 were probably of German nationality, Germanwings said. Lufthansa Chief Executive Officer Carsten Spohr said he’ll travel to the crash site with German representatives including Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt.
Germanwings operates Deutsche Lufthansa’s European routes outside of the German carrier’s main Frankfurt and Munich hubs. The move was designed for Lufthansa to better compete against budget carriers in Europe. Lufthansa, like its European peers, has come under pressure to lower costs as more people opt for no-frills airlines on shorter distances.