Plane with 150 on board crashes in French Alps

24th March 2015, Comments 0 comments

A German airliner crashed near a ski resort in the French Alps on Tuesday, killing all 150 people on board, in the worst plane disaster in mainland France in four decades.

France's junior transport minister said there were "no survivors" from the crash of the Germanwings Airbus A320, a low-cost subsidiary of Lufthansa, in a remote part of the Alps that is extremely difficult to access.

Civil aviation authorities said they lost contact with the plane, which was carrying 144 passengers and six crew, and declared it was in distress at 10:30 am (0930 GMT).

"The distress signal showed the plane was at 5,000 feet in an abnormal situation," said Alain Vidalies, minister of state for transport.

Spanish King Felipe VI cut short his state visit to France on news of the tragedy, with a number of Spanish nationals believed to be among the dead along with Germans and possibly Turks.

French President Francois Hollande said the plane crashed in an area very difficult to access and rescuers would not be able to reach the site for several hours.

"I want to express all our solidarity to the families affected by this tragedy," Hollande told reporters.

The plane was travelling from the Spanish coastal city of Barcelona to the German city of Duesseldorf when it went down in the ski resort area of Barcelonnette.

A witness who was skiing near the crash site told a French television channel he "heard an enormous noise" around the time of the disaster.

A French police helicopter dispatched to the site of the crash reported spotting debris in a mountain range known as "Les Trois Eveches," which reaches 1,400 metres in altitude.

The government said "major rescue efforts" had been mobilised, but accessing the remote region would present severe challenges.

"The zone is snow-bound and inaccessible to vehicles, but could be overflown by helicopters," said Vidalies.

The plane belonged to Germanwings, a low-cost affiliate of German airline Lufthansa based in Cologne which until now had no record of fatal accidents.

France's leading air traffic controller union SNCTA has called off a strike planned from Wednesday to Friday.

"We are suspending our planned strike as a result of the emotions created in the control rooms by the crash, particularly in Aix-en-Provence," the union's spokesman Roger Rousseau told AFP.

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr said on twitter the airline had no immediate details on the crash, describing it as a "dark day."

"My deepest sympathy goes to the families and friends of our passengers and crew on 4U 9525. If our fears are confirmed, this is a dark day for Lufthansa. We hope to find survivors."

Hollande spoke briefly by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and expressed solidarity with Germany.

- Crisis cell -

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve immediately headed to the scene while Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he had called an inter-ministerial crisis cell.

"We don't know the reasons for the crash, we clearly fear that the 150 passengers and personnel have been killed considering the circumstances of the crash," said Valls.

"All is being done to understand what happened and to help the families of the victims," he said.

Germanwings was due to hold a press conference at 1400 GMT but had no immediate comment on what caused the disaster, the worst in mainland France since a Turkish Airlines crash in 1974 that killed 346 people.

In 1981, a plane crashed on the island of Corsica with 180 people on board.

A spokesman for Airbus, the European aerospace giant, said it could not make any comment "for the moment".

"We have no information on the circumstances of the accident," the spokesman told AFP, adding that the company had opened a "crisis cell".

In July 2000, an Air France Concorde crashed shortly after take-off from Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport en route for New York, leaving 113 people, mainly Germans dead and eventually leading to the supersonic airliner being taken out of service.

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.

France's leading air traffic controller union SNCTA called off a strike planned from Wednesday to Friday after news of the crash.

"We are suspending our planned strike as a result of the emotions created in the control rooms by the crash, particularly in Aix-en-Provence," the union's spokesman Roger Rousseau told AFP.

Lufthansa itself was hit by a four-day pilots' strike last week, although this did not affect Germanwings.

Shares in Airbus and Lufthansa were both down after the tragedy.

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© 2015 AFP

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