France crash: Germanwings plane obliterated, data recorder found

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Latest developments:

• 5:11 p.m. ET: Two Australians were killed in the Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crash in southeastern France, according to Australian media, citing Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. “Sadly, I can confirm that there were two Australian citizens on board, a mother and her adult son from Victoria,” Bishop said, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families.”

• 5:04 p.m. ET: Two Colombians were killed in the Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crash in the French Alps on Tuesday, Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said.

• 5:03 p.m. ET: The site where a Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crashed in the French Alps is “a picture of horror,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Tuesday after flying over the crash site and attending a briefing by French security forces on the situation. “The grief of the families and loved ones is immeasurable,” Steinmeier said. “We must stand with them. We are all united in great grief.”

• 4:57 p.m. ET: Germanwings was forced to cancel some flights after one of its planes crashed in the French Alps, the airline said. “There were crews that didn’t want to fly after hearing of the crash,” Germanwings said.

• 3:24 p.m. ET: Lufthansa Group said the company will look after the relatives of those on board Germanwings Flight 9525. “There will be a contact center established in France; relatives who would like to take advantage of this will be transferred to the contact center at no cost — and their accommodation paid for — just as soon as the center has been established,” the statement said.

• 2:48 p.m. ET: U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his condolences after the Germanwings plane crash in the French Alps. “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,” Obama said. “It’s particularly heartbreaking because it apparently includes the loss of so many children, some of them infants. I called German Chancellor Merkel and I hope to speak with President Rajoy of Spain later today to express the condolences of the American people and to give them whatever assistance that we can as they investigate this awful tragedy.”

Obama said U.S. officials are working to determine how many Americans may have been on the flight.

Full story:

A Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crashed Tuesday in the Alps in southeastern France with 150 people on board, obliterating the plane and sending shock waves through at least three European nations.

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 on board. 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.

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 may not be able to retrieve any bodies Tuesday, according to Sauvan, 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. As of Tuesday evening, there were few clues.

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. Members of France’s aviation accident investigation bureau were expected to have the recorder later Tuesday, he added, though a final analysis is still a ways off.

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

Students, teachers among the victims

Relatives of those believed to be on the flight, fearing the worst, gathered at the Barcelona airport, where a crisis center has been set up. French authorities set up a chapel near the crash site.

Those aboard included a “high number of Spaniards, Germans and Turks,” according to Spain’s King Felipe VI. Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann said it’s believed 67 people, or nearly half of those on the plane, are German citizens.

A Dutch citizen and a Belgian — the latter a resident of Barcelona — were among those on the flight, according to those countries’ foreign ministries.

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

Sixteen students and two teachers from one German high school, called Joseph Koenig Gymnasium, were among those booked on Flight 9525, according to Florian Adamik, a municipal official in Haltern, the town where the school is located. A crisis center has been established at the city hall in Haltern, which is about 77 kilometers (48 miles) north of Dusseldorf’s airport.

Winkelmann confirmed the 16 students and two teachers were on board the plane.

Haltern’s mayor, Bodo Klimpel, said they had been heading home after taking part in a foreign exchange program.

“The whole city is shocked, and we can feel it everywhere,” Klimpel said.

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.

It’s an out-of-the-way place with magnificent scenery, 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. Seyne-les-Alpes is about 10 kilometers from the crash site.

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.

Another 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 14,000 feet in six minutes, tracker shows

According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, just under 16% 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 — a drop of nearly 27,000 feet. The plane’s speed dropped during the descent, from 551 mph to 480, according to the tracking data.

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.

That small piece of information about the descent means that the pilot could have been trying to make an emergency landing, or that the plane was gliding with the pilot’s guidance, Schiavo said.

A scenario where the plane was gliding is potentially more dangerous because wide fields for landing would be hard to come by in the mountains, she said.

Merkel: ‘Think of the victims’

The crash spurred officials in several countries — from Spain’s King to France’s President to Germany’s Chancellor — to offer their condolences and pledge solidarity and cooperation to help those affected and determine what happened.

“We have to think of the victims and their families and their friends,” Germany’s Merkel said.

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.

“In these difficult hours, our thoughts are with those who have to fear that their close ones are among the passengers and crew,” he said.