150 dead in mystery plane crash in French Alps

24th March 2015, Comments 0 comments

A plane operated by the budget carrier of Germany's Lufthansa crashed in a remote area of the French Alps Tuesday, killing all 150 on board in France's worst aviation disaster in decades.

With the cause of the accident a complete mystery, authorities recovered a black box from the Airbus A320 at the crash site, where rescue efforts were being hampered by the mountainous terrain.

Local MP Christophe Castaner, who flew over the crash site, said on Twitter: "Horrendous images in this mountain scenery."

"Nothing is left but debris and bodies. Flying over the crash site with the interior minister -- a horror -- the plane is totally destroyed."

Video images from a government helicopter flying near the area showed a desolate snow-flecked moonscape, with steep ravines covered in scree.

Budget airline Germanwings said the Airbus plunged for eight minutes but French aviation officials said the plane had made no distress call before crashing near the ski resort of Barcelonnette.

"A black box was found and will be delivered to investigators," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.

Weather did not appear to be a factor in the crash, with conditions "calm" at the time.

"There was no cloud at the plane's cruising altitude", winds were "light to moderate" and there was no turbulence that could have contributed to the crash, French weather officials said.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said there were no survivors, adding that the authorities "can't rule out any theory" on the cause of the disaster.

The plane, carrying 144 mainly Spanish and German passengers -- including two babies -- and six crew, was travelling from Barcelona to the western German city of Duesseldorf when it came down.

German authorities said 16 German teenagers on a school trip were on board the doomed plane, as tearful relatives rushed to the airports in the two cities anxiously seeking information about their loved ones.

French President Francois Hollande said he would meet his German and Spanish counterparts at the crash site on Wednesday.

- 'It is a tragedy' -

It was the first fatal accident in the history of Germanwings, and the deadliest on the French mainland since 1974 when a Turkish Airlines crashed, killing 346 people.

"It is a tragedy, a new airline tragedy. We will determine what caused the crash," Hollande said.

The dead included Germans, Spaniards and "probably" Turks, Hollande said, while Belgium said at least one of its nationals was on board.

Germanwings said 67 Germans were believed to have been on board while Spain said 45 people with Spanish sounding names were on the flight.

A crisis cell has been set up in the area between Barcelonnette and Digne-les-Bains along with an emergency flight control centre to coordinate the chopper flights to the crash site.

Authorities commandeered a large meadow with dozens of helicopters taking off to head to the crash site.

Valls said one helicopter had been able to touch down at the site of the accident but locals described the difficult terrain that awaited rescue teams.

"Ground access is horrible, I know the Estrop massif, 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.

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

- 'Dark day' -

The plane belonged to Germanwings, a low-cost affiliate of German flag carrier Lufthansa based in Cologne.

"We've never had a total loss of aircraft in the company's history until now," a company spokeswoman told AFP.

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr described it as a "dark day."

A spokesman for Airbus, the European aerospace giant, did not give any information about possible causes but said the company had opened a "crisis cell" and was sending experts to the scene.

French civil aviation authorities said they lost contact with the plane and declared it was in distress at 10:30am (0930 GMT).

However, the aircraft's crew did not send a distress signal, civil aviation authorities told AFP.

"The crew did not send a Mayday. It was air traffic control that decided to declare the plane was in distress because there was no contact with the crew of the plane," the source said.

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

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, leaving 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.

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© 2015 AFP

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