Investigators were preparing Wednesday for a second day of searching inhospitable Alpine mountainsides for more clues to what caused a German medium-haul jetliner to fall out of the sky over southern France in the span of just eight minutes.
The Germanwings Airbus A320 operated by Lufthansa was less than an hour from completing its scheduled flight to Dusseldorf from Barcelona Tuesday morning when it unexpectedly went into a rapid descent from its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet to around 6,000 feet. French officials have said that it is unlikely that any of the 150 passengers and crew on board survived.
Investigators got an early boost when one of the plane’s two flight recorders — the so-called “black boxes” — was recovered Tuesday. Officials did not immediately confirm whether it was the flight data recorder or cockpit voice recorder that was found, though Reuters reported late Tuesday that it was the latter. France’s flight security agency, the BEA, was scheduled to analyze the contents, and Reuters reported that a press conference was expected Wednesday afternoon.
The cockpit voice recorder will likely provide vital clues about whether the pilots were conscious and whether the crew fought to save the plane during its descent. The flight data recorder could reveal how specific systems on the plane were operating, including whether a catastrophic electrical fault could have led to a crash.
Governments on both sides of the Atlantic appear to have ruled out terrorism as a possible cause. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said “There is no indication of a nexus to terrorism at this time.” The Wall Street Journal reported that the French government had assigned prosecutors based in the nearby city of Marseilles to investigate the crash, rather than its anti-terrorism unit, which is based in Paris.
In another twist, the secretary-general of France’s air traffic controllers union said that the plane did not appear to deviate from its flight plan as it went down, which is unusual for an aircraft in distress.
“If there’s a loss of control, pilots usually lose their way too,” Roger Rousseau told the Journal. “That didn’t happen in this case.”
“We cannot say at the moment why our colleague went into the descent, and so quickly, and without previously consulting air traffic control,” Germanwings’ director of flight operations, Stefan-Kenan Scheib, said Tuesday.
The wreckage was later located at an altitude of about 6,550 feet at Meolans-Revels, near the popular ski resort of Pra Loup. The remote site is 430 miles south-southeast of Paris. French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said the crash site covered several acres, with thousands of pieces of debris, “which leads us to think the impact must have been extremely violent at very high speed.”
Complicating the recovery and investigation is the inaccessibility of the site by road, forcing emergency workers to choose between hiking up from a base established in a nearby village or rappelling down from helicopters unable to land on the uneven terrain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.