Black box under analysis as Germanwings recovery operation continues
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The arduous search for the 150 victims of the worst aviation disaster on French soil in decades resumed at dawn Wednesday, as European leaders made their way to the site of the tragedy to pay their respects.
Germanwings flight 4U9525, carrying 144 passengers including 16 German teenagers returning home from a school trip, plunged for eight minutes before hitting the side of a mountain in the French Alps Tuesday with no survivors.
There was no response to desperate attempts by air traffic controllers to reach the pilots.
The cause of the accident remains a mystery but authorities have recovered one of two black boxes from the Airbus A320 at the crash site, where debris was believed to be scattered over four acres of remote and inaccessible mountainous terrain, hampering rescue efforts.
More than 300 policemen and 380 firefighters have been mobilised. Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Marc Menichini said a squad of 30 mountain rescue police would resume attempts to reach the crash site by helicopter at dawn Wednesday, while a further 65 police were seeking access on foot. Five investigators had spent the night at the site.
It would take "at least a week" to search the remote site, he said, and "at least several days" to repatriate the bodies.
Video images from a government helicopter Tuesday showed a desolate snow-flecked moonscape, with steep ravines covered in scree. Debris was strewn across the mountainside, pieces of twisted metal smashed into tiny bits.
The plane was "totally destroyed", a local MP who flew over the site said, describing the scene as "horrendous".
"The biggest body parts we identified are not bigger than a briefcase," one investigator said.
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 chopper flights to the crash site.
Bereaved families were expected to begin arriving at Seyne-Les-Alpes, the French town close to the crash site, on Wednesday.
The town’s mayor, Francis Hermitte, said locals had offered to host the families because of the shortage of rooms to rent there.
French President François Hollande, his German counterpart Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy were expected to reach the scene around 2:00 p.m. local time Wednesday.
The 144 passengers were mainly German and Spanish.
The high school in the small German town of Haltern attended by the 16 students on the plane was set to hold an event Wednesday to honour the victims.
"This is certainly the darkest day in the history of our city," said a tearful Bodo Klimpel, the town's mayor, Tuesday. "It is the worst thing you can imagine."
Spain, meanwhile, declared three days of mourning and was to hold a minute of silence across the country at noon Wednesday.
Opera singers Oleg Bryjak, 54, and Maria Radner, 33, were also on board, flying to their home city of Duesseldorf. Radner was travelling with her husband and baby, one of two infants on board the plane.
Working on assumption of 'accident'
Budget airline Germanwings said the Airbus, travelling from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, plunged for eight minutes but the crew made no distress call before crashing near the ski resort of Barcelonnette.
The rapid descent was "unexplained", Marseilles prosecutor Brice Robin, in charge of the investigation, said.
French authorities on Wednesday confirmed that the black box retrieved was the aircraft’s voice and cockpit sound recorder, noting that it had been damaged in the crash, but that it was still believed to be functioning. It arrived in Paris for analysis.
Investigators continued searching for the second black box – the flight data recorder – on Wednesday.
The weather was mostly clear at the time of the crash, while the plane was at what should have been the safest part of its flight path – just 10 percent of fatal accidents occur while aircraft are at cruising elevation.
Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, said it was working on the assumption that the crash was an "accident".
"Anything else would be speculation," Lufthansa vice president Heike Birlenbach told reporters in Barcelona.
She said the 24-year-old Airbus A320 had undergone its last routine check on Monday.
Thanks to the retrieved black box, Lufthansa Chief Executive Carsten Spohr said initial information about the cause of the plane crash should be available “relatively quickly.”
Germanwings said the pilot had more than 10 years of experience and some 6,000 flying hours on an Airbus jet under his belt.
It was the first fatal accident in the history of Germanwings, and the deadliest on French soil since 1981, when 180 people were killed in a crash in Corsica.
'Ground access is horrible'
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."
Germanwings said 67 Germans were believed to have been on board, while Spain said 45 people with Spanish-sounding names were on the flight.
Two Colombians, two Argentines, and two Australians were among the dead, according to their governments, while Hollande said Turks may also have been aboard.
Two Japanese were "very likely" on board, their government said. Belgium, Denmark and Israel said at least one of their nationals were among the passengers. Mexico believes three of its citizens were among the victims and Britain said at least three of its nationals were also on board.
A Swedish third division football team booked on the fatal flight had changed flights at the last minute. "May they rest in peace," Dalkurd FF goalkeeper Frank Pettersson wrote on Twitter.
In Dusseldorf, Germanwings had to cancel seven flights because a number of crew members felt they were unfit to fly following news of the accident.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said on Tuesday evening that he understood the crew members’ sentiments.
“One must not forget: many of our Germanwings crews have known crew members who were onboard the crashed plane,” Spohr said.
“It is now more important to ensure psychological assistance if needed. And we will get back to a full flight operation as soon as possible then. But for me, this is rather secondary now,” he added.
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 24 with AP, AFP)