Rescue helicopter from the French Gendarmerie hovers in front of the crash site of an Airbus A320
By Jean-Francois Rosnoblet
SEYNE-LES-ALPES, France (Reuters) - An Airbus operated by Lufthansa's Germanwings budget airline crashed into a mountainside in the French Alps on Tuesday, killing all 150 people on board including 16 schoolchildren.
Germanwings confirmed its flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona to Duesseldorf went down with 144 passengers and six crew on board.
One of the plane's black box recorders has been found at the crash site, about 100 km (65 miles) north of the Riviera city of Nice, and will be examined immediately, France's interior minister said.
In Washington, the White House said the crash did not appear to have been caused by a terrorist attack, while Lufthansa said it was working on the assumption that the tragedy had been an accident, adding that any other theory would be speculation.
Aerial photographs showed smoldering wreckage and a piece of the fuselage with six windows strewn across the steep mountainside cut by ravines.
"We saw an aircraft that had literally been ripped apart, the bodies are in a state of destruction, there is not one intact piece of wing or fuselage," Brice Robin, prosecutor for the city of Marseille, told Reuters after flying over the wreckage in a helicopter.
Germanwings believed 67 Germans had been on the flight. Spain's deputy prime minister said 45 passengers had Spanish names. One Belgian was also aboard.
Also among the victims were 16 children and two teachers from the Joseph-Koenig-Gymnasium high school in the town of Haltern am See in northwest Germany, a spokeswoman said.
Barcelona's Liceu opera house said on Twitter that two singers, Kazakhstan-born Oleg Bryjak and German Maria Radner, had died while returning to Duesseldorf after they had performed in Wagner's Siegfried at the theater.
French police at the crash site about 2,000 meters (6,000 feet) above sea level said no one had survived and it would take days to recover the bodies due to difficult terrain, snow and incoming storms.
Police said search teams would stay overnight at altitude. "We are still searching. It's unlikely any bodies will be airlifted until Wednesday," regional police chief David Galtier told Reuters.
In Paris, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told parliament: "A helicopter managed to land (by the crash site) and has confirmed that unfortunately there were no survivors."
It was the first crash of a large passenger jet on French soil since the Concorde disaster just outside Paris nearly 15 years ago. The A320 is a workhorse of aviation fleets and one of the world’s most used passenger jets.
It has a good safety record. However, according to data from the Aviation Safety Network, Tuesday's crash was the third most deadly involving an A320. In 2007 a TAM Linhas Aereas A320 shot off a runway in Brazil, killing 187 people, while 162 people died when an Indonesia AirAsia jet went down in the Java Sea in December.
Germanwings said the plane started descending one minute after reaching its cruising height and continued losing altitude for eight minutes.
"The aircraft's contact with French radar, French air traffic controllers, ended at 10.53 am at an altitude of about 6,000 feet. The plane then crashed," Germanwings' Managing Director Thomas Winkelmann told a news conference.
Winkelmann also said that routine maintenance of the aircraft was performed by Lufthansa on Monday.
Experts said that while the Airbus had descended rapidly, its rate of descent did not suggest it had simply fallen out of the sky.
France's DGAC aviation authority said air traffic controllers initiated distress procedures after they lost contact with the Airbus.
"The aircraft did not itself make a distress call but it was the combination of the loss of radio contact and the aircraft's descent which led the controller to implement the distress phase," a DGAC spokesman said.
In emergencies, pilots are trained to try to fly the aircraft as their first priority, then pay attention to navigation and only then communicate with the ground.
The aircraft came down in an alpine region known for skiing, hiking and rafting, but which is hard for rescue services to reach. The search and recovery effort based itself in a gymnasium in the village of Seyne-les-Alpes, which has a small private aerodrome nearby.
STORMS, SNOW, CLOUD
As helicopters and emergency vehicles assembled, the weather was reported to be closing in.
“There will be a lot of cloud cover this afternoon, with local storms, snow above 1,800 meters and relatively low clouds. That will not help the helicopters in their work,” an official from the local weather center told Reuters.
Lufthansa Chief Executive Carsten Spohr, who planned to go to the crash site, spoke of a "dark day for Lufthansa".
"My deepest sympathy goes to the families and friends of our passengers and crew," Lufthansa said on Twitter, citing Spohr.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would travel to the site on Wednesday. Germanwings and the Catalan regional government were preparing to take Spanish relatives there.
Family members arrived at Barcelona’s El Prat airport, many crying and with arms around each others’ shoulders, accompanied by police and airport staff.
In Llinars del Valles, the Spanish village that hosted the German schoolchildren, Mayor Marti Pujol said the whole village was distraught. "The families knew each other," he told Reuters. "The parents had been to see them off at 6 this morning."
King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain called off a state visit to France in a sign of mourning for the victims. They had arrived in Paris minutes after the crash happened.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said his thoughts and prayers were with Germany and Spain after what he called the "awful tragedy".
Airbus confirmed that the plane was 24 years old, having first been delivered to Lufthansa in 1991. It was powered by engines made by CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric and France's Safran.
(Additional reporting by Robert Hetz, John Irish, Nicolas Bertin, Gregory Blachier, Tim Hepher, Alwyn Scott, Elena Gyldenkerne, Robert-Jan Bartunek, Matthias Inverardi and Sabine Siebold; writing by Giles Elgood and David Stamp; editing by Mark John and Peter Millership)