Rescuers search for crash victims in French Alps
SEYNE-LES-ALPES, France (3rd UPDATE) – French rescuers resumed the search Wednesday, March 25, for the remains of the 150 people, including 16 school children, killed when a Germanwings Airbus slammed into the side of a nearly inaccessible mountain in the Alps.
Helicopters took off from a nearby improvised base, heading for the rugged area where flight 4U9525 crashed Tuesday, March 24, spreading debris and body parts of the mostly German and Spanish victims over a wide area.
Officials are hunting for clues to why the plane, operated by German flag carrier Lufthansa's budget subsidiary, entered a fatal 8-minute descent on its route between Barcelona and Duesseldorf.
No distress signal was sent and the crew failed to respond to desperate attempts at contact from ground control.
The cockpit voice recorder recovered from the wreckage has been found damaged and has been taken to Paris for analysis, a source close to the inquiry said Wednesday.
"The black box that was found is the CVR," the source told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity. The cockpit voice recorder (CVR) "was damaged. It has been transferred to Paris this morning."
A second so-called black box, in this case recording flight data, has yet to be found.
Video images from a government helicopter Tuesday 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.
Debris was believed to be scattered over four acres of remote and inaccessible mountainous terrain, hampering rescue efforts.
The plane was "totally destroyed", a local member of parliament who flew over the site said, describing the scene as "horrendous".
"The biggest body parts we identified are not bigger than a briefcase," one investigator said.
More than 300 policemen and 380 firefighters have been mobilised for the grisly task of searching the site.
Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Marc Menichini said a squad of 30 mountain rescue police would resume attempts to reach the crash site by helicopter at dawn Wednesday, while a further 65 police were seeking access on foot. Five investigators had spent the night camped at the site.
It would take "at least a week" to search the remote site, he said.
"Ground access is horrible.... It's a very high mountainous area, very steep and it's terrible to get there except from the air during winter," local resident Francoise Pie said.
Family members of the dead were to arrive Wednesday at the rescuers' logistics base in a village near the crash site.
French President Francois Hollande, his German counterpart Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy were also expected to arrive in the area around 2 pm local time (1300 GMT).
The dead included 6 crew and 144 passengers, a majority of them German and Spanish. They included 16 German teenagers returning home from a school trip.
Their high school in the small German town of Haltern was to hold a memorial event Wednesday to honor the victims.
"This is certainly the darkest day in the history of our city," said a tearful Bodo Klimpel, the town's mayor. "It is the worst thing you can imagine."
Spain, meanwhile, declared 3 days of mourning and was to hold a minute of silence across the country at noon Wednesday. Spanish King Felipe VI cut short his first state visit to France on Tuesday minutes after it began when he heard news of the tragedy.
Opera singers Oleg Bryjak, 54, and Maria Radner, 33, were also on board, flying to their home city of Duesseldorf. Radner was traveling with her husband and baby, one of two infants on board the plane.
Assumed to be 'accident'
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Wednesday that "terrorism theory is not the theory we're focusing on."
Germanwings, the growing low-cost subsidiary of the prestigious Lufthansa carrier, had an unblemished safety record and there was still no clue as to what could have caused the disaster.
The rapid descent was "unexplained", Marseilles prosecutor Brice Robin said.
Weather did not appear to be a factor in the crash, with conditions calm at the time, French weather officials said. (TIMELINE: The crash of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525)
Lufthansa said it was working on the assumption that the crash was an "accident".
"Anything else would be speculation," Lufthansa vice president Heike Birlenbach told reporters in Barcelona.
She said the 24-year-old Airbus A320 had undergone its last routine safety check on Monday, March 23.
Germanwings executive Thomas Winkelmann said the pilot at the controls had "more than 10 years of experience" and some 6,000 flying hours on an Airbus under his belt.
It was the deadliest air crash on the French mainland since 1974 when a Turkish Airlines plane crashed, killing 346 people.
Victims from around world
Germanwings said 67 Germans were believed to have been on board, while Spain said 45 people with Spanish-sounding names were on the flight. (READ: Tearful crash victims' relatives gather at airports)
Two Colombians, two Argentines, and two Australians were among the dead, according to their governments, while Hollande said Turks may also have been aboard.
Two Japanese were "very likely" on board, their government said. Belgium and Denmark said at least one of their nationals was on board, while Mexico said 3 of its citizens were believed to be among the victims and Britain said its nationals were also on board.
A Swedish third division football team booked on the fatal flight changing flights at the last minute, sparing them. – Daniel Ortelli and Marc Burleigh, AFP / Rappler.com