150 dead in 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 the worst aviation disaster on French soil 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 site, said on Twitter: "Horrendous images in this mountain scenery. Nothing is left but debris and bodies.

"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.

German flag carrier Lufthansa said it was working on the assumption the crash was an "accident".

"Anything else would be speculation," Lufthansa vice president Heike Birlenbach told reporters at Barcelona's El Prat airport from where the plane took off.

She said the 24-year-old Airbus A320 had passed its last routine check on Monday.

The aircraft, 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 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 plane 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.

Denmark also said 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.

One of the first victims identified was opera singer Oleg Bryjak, of the Duesseldorf opera house.

"We have lost a great artist and a great man ... We are shocked," said Christoph Meyer, general director of the opera house.

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 ... 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.

Another local official, Gilbert Sauvan, told AFP: "The only possible access was by helicopter and people had to be winched down because the choppers couldn't land."

A separate mountain rescue team left on foot but they would take "three hours ... because it's very steep and you need crampons," he added.

- 'No Mayday' -

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

"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," an official 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, 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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