Grim deployment to debris-strewn crash site in French Alps

24th March 2015, Comments 0 comments

Tiny pieces of debris scattered across a barren mountain pass deep in the French Alps presented a daunting task for investigators hunting clues to Tuesday's horrifying crash of a Germanwings airliner that killed 150 people.

A small air field near the ski resort of Barcelonnette became a hastily assembled crisis centre for the rescue officials, investigators and government ministers in the hours after the mysterious crash of the Airbus A320.

A steady run of helicopters buzzed through the air, heading for the desolate snow-flecked moonscape of the Estrop mountain range where a confetti of debris was spread over at least two kilometres.

A local farmer, Jean-Christophe, who helped guide rescuers to the site, told RTL radio there was "really nothing left" of the plane.

"I saw pieces of aircraft and smoke. The bits of airplane were not very big -- we could see that it had completely exploded into small pieces -- completely pulverised," he said.

The hopes of finding survivors faded rapidly as the first rescuers reached the site shortly after the mid-morning crash.

More than 500 firefighters and police, many with specialist training in difficult terrain, had been immediately scrambled.

They poured in from across France's southeast -- "proud to have been chosen," in the words of one fireman -- for a frantic search for survivors among the 144 passengers and six crew.

But their hopes were quickly dashed, as it soon became clear there was no rescue work to be done.

Instead, many will find themselves with the grim task of recovering bodies in the coming days.

"The biggest body pieces we have seen are no bigger than this small carry case," said one police officer who had just returned from the crash site by helicopter.

Among the debris, "only the landing gear could be identified", said one of his colleagues, who added that reaching the site by land would require "serious rock-climbing."

- 'Horrendous images' -

The Germanwings flight had been travelling from Barcelona to the German city of Duesseldorf when it swept over the Alpine homes of this high-altitude region.

Few residents near the site saw anything, but one witness who was skiing near the crash site told French television he "heard an enormous noise" around the time of the disaster.

Local MP Christophe Castaner, who flew over the crash site with the interior minister, wrote on Twitter: "Horrendous images in this mountain scenery. Nothing is left but debris and bodies."

As night fell, the constant throb of helicopters continued, while the streets of the nearby village of Seyne filled with long lines of rescue vehicles and official motorcades.

Many high-level politicians are due in the coming hours, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who will join French President Francois Hollande at the site on Wednesday afternoon.

For local businesses, the flood of arrivals has come out of the blue.

"Dozens of journalists have phoned to reserve rooms from Belgium, Germany and Spain. It's worse than high season," said the local tourism office.

But the site will also become the epicentre of terrible grief, with the French government block-booking hotels in the region for the families of victims they are helping to travel to the scene.

A chapel has been set up in a youth centre.

"Considering the conditions there, it will take several days to bring the bodies down, if the weather allows," said Serge Degandt, a local politician.

"At the time of the crash, it was blue skies, visibility was perfect. But it turned bad shortly after."

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© 2015 AFP

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