‘Nothing is left but debris and bodies’: 150 dead after German jet crashes in France
Plane dropped from 38,000ft to 6,000ft in eight minutes before disappearing from radar screens
All 150 passengers and crew were killed when their Germanwings jet crashed into the side of a mountain in a remote part of the French Alps amid calm weather conditions, in the worst aviation disaster on French soil in decades.
The plane had lurched down from a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet to 6,000 feet within a span of eight minutes before disappearing from French radar screens at 10.53am local time, and the pilots did not issue a distress call during the sudden descent, the Washington Post reported.
Authorities have recovered one of two black boxes from the downed Airbus A320, which could shed light on the plane’s final minutes, when air traffic controllers were met with radio silence from Flight 4U 9525’s cockpit. It was unclear if it was the flight data or the cockpit voice recorder that was retrieved.
Air traffic controllers said desperately tried to hail the pilots as it lost altitude en route to Dusseldorf from Barcelona, but received no response.
It crashed near the ski resort of Barcelonnette. Weather appears not to have been a factor as conditions were “calm” at the time, French authorities said.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls confirmed in parliament that no one had survived the disaster and Lufthansa, which operates budget carrier Germanwings, said it was working on the assumption the crash was an “accident”.
“Anything else would be speculation,” Lufthansa vice-president Heike Birlenbach told reporters at Barcelona’s El Prat airport.
Valls said the 24-year-old Airbus A320 had undergone its last routine check the day before the flight. Germanwings officials also said the plane’s computer systems were “fully updated”, the Washington Post said.
Among the 144 passengers and six crew were 16 German teenagers and their two teachers who were on a school trip. The mayor of their hometown called it “the darkest day in the history of our city”.
The passengers were mainly German and Spanish, and included two babies.
The flight’s departure had been delayed by 30 minutes for as yet unknown reasons, the Post reported.
Efforts to reach the wreckage were hampered by the mountainous terrain. Authorities commandeered a large meadow with dozens of helicopters taking off. Several days will be needed to recover the scattered remains of those killed, a police spokesman said.
Video images from a government helicopter showed a desolate snow-flecked moonscape, with steep ravines covered in scree. Debris was strewn across the mountainside, pieces of twisted metal smashed into tiny bits.
Local lawmaker Christophe Castaner, who flew over the site, said on Twitter: “Horrendous images in this mountain scenery. Nothing is left but debris and bodies. A horror – the plane is totally destroyed.”
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who also flew over the crash site in a helicopter, described a “horrific sight”. “We are all united in great sorrow,” he said.
“There was no cloud at the plane’s cruising altitude”, winds were “light to moderate” and there was no turbulence that could have contributed to the crash, French weather officials said.
Germanwings executive Thomas Winkelmann said the pilot had “more than 10 years of experience” and some 6,000 flying hours on an Airbus jet under his belt.
It was the first fatal accident in the history of Germanwings, and the deadliest on the French mainland since 1974 when a Turkish Airlines plane crashed, killing 346 people.
Another fatal crash on French soil was in 2000, when a Concorde plane flown by Air France crashed into a hotel in Gonesse, 25 kilometres north of Paris, killing 109 people.
Expressing their shock, French President Francois Hollande, his German counterpart Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said they would all go to the crash site today.
Germanwings said 67 Germans were believed to have been on board while Spain said 45 people with Spanish-sounding names were on the flight.
Two Colombians, two Australians and two Argentines were also confirmed to be among the dead, while Hollande said Turks may also have been aboard.
Belgium and Denmark said at least one of their nationals was on board, while Britain said its nationals were likely among the victims.
Japan also said it was checking whether two of the passengers were Japanese.
A Swedish third-division soccer team booked on the fatal flight had changed flights at the last minute. “May they rest in peace,” Dalkurd FF goalkeeper Frank Pettersson wrote on Twitter.
The A320 enjoys a track record as one of the safest jets in the skies. For every million takeoffs, the A320 fleet has about 0.14 fatal accidents, according to a Boeing study that analyxed five decades of air disasters. That puts it on par with the Boeing 777 as one of the most reliable commercial planes, the Washington Post noted.
The world’s worst air disasters remain the March 27, 1977, collision of two Boeing 747s on the runway at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, killing 583 people, and the August 12, 1985 crash into a mountainside of a Boeing 747 belonging to Japan Airlines, killing 520 people.