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Tue 24 Mar 2015 04:46 PM

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Investigators seek clues into why jet ploughed into French Alps

Lufthansa's Germanwings budget airline crashed, killing all 150 people on board

Investigators seek clues into why jet ploughed into French Alps

Updated:
French investigators will sift through wreckage on Wednesday for clues into why
a German Airbus ploughed into an Alpine mountainside, killing all 150 people on
board including 16 schoolchildren returning from an exchange trip to Spain.

The A320 jet
operated by Lufthansa's Germanwings budget airline was obliterated when it went
down in a rugged area of ravines on Tuesday while flying over France en route
to Duesseldorf from Barcelona.

No distress
call was received from the aircraft, but France said one of the two "black
box" flight recorders had been recovered from the site 2,000 meters (6,000
feet) above sea level.

A person
familiar with the recovery effort told Reuters that this was the cockpit voice
recorder. Investigators will also need the other black box which records flight
data, information that is essential for probing air accidents.

Civil aviation
investigators from France's Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses (BEA) are expected
to hold a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.

In Washington,
the White House said the crash did not appear to have been caused by a
terrorist attack. Lufthansa said it was working on the assumption that the
tragedy had been an accident, adding that any other theory would be
speculation.

French
President Francois Hollande will visit the area about 100 km (65 miles) north
of the Riviera city of Nice on Wednesday along with German Chancellor Angela
Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Germanwings
believed 67 Germans had been on the flight and Spain's deputy prime minister
said 45 passengers had Spanish names. One Belgian was also aboard. Australian
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed two Australian citizens had died, a
mother and her adult son from the state of Victoria.

British Foreign
Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement that it was likely some British
nationals were on board the flight. He said checks were still being made on
passenger information.

Also among the
victims were 16 teenagers and two teachers from the Joseph-Koenig-Gymnasium
high school in the town of Haltern am See in northwest Germany. They were on
their way home after a week-long Spanish exchange program near Barcelona. It
was a reciprocal visit after 12 Spanish students spent a week at their school
in December.

Students were
sent home from the school but many returned in the afternoon with candles in
their hands and tears in their eyes to mourn.

Barcelona's
Liceu opera house said on Twitter that two singers, Kazakhstan-born Oleg Bryjak
and German Maria Radner, had died while returning to Duesseldorf after
performing in Wagner's Siegfried at the theater.

Aerial
photographs showed smoldering wreckage and a piece of the fuselage with six
windows strewn across the steep mountainside.

"We saw an
aircraft that had literally been ripped apart, the bodies are in a state of
destruction, there is not one intact piece of wing or fuselage," Brice
Robin, prosecutor for the city of Marseille, told Reuters after flying over the
wreckage in a helicopter.

Germanwings
said the plane started descending one minute after reaching its cruising height
and continued losing altitude for eight minutes.

"The
aircraft's contact with French radar, French air traffic controllers, ended at
10.53 am at an altitude of about 6,000 feet. The plane then crashed,"
Germanwings' Managing Director Thomas Winkelmann told a news conference.

Winkelmann
later said some Germanwings crew members had declared themselves unfit to fly,
leading to some cancellations. "We understand that on a day like today,
they wouldn’t feel able to fly," he told German broadcaster ZDF.

Experts said
that while the Airbus had descended rapidly, it did not seem to have simply
fallen out of the sky.

A Lufthansa
flight from Bilbao to Munich on Nov. 5 lost altitude after sensors iced over
and the onboard computer, fearing the plane was about to stall, put the nose
down. As a result, the European Aviation Safety Agency ordered a change in
procedure for all A320 jets.

Asked whether
something similar could have occurred on Tuesday, Winkelmann said, "At
this time this evening, we are ruling out a possible cause in this area."

The aircraft
came down in a region known for skiing, hiking and rafting, but which is
difficult for rescue services to reach. The base of operations for the recovery
was set up in a gymnasium in the village of Seyne-les-Alpes, which has a
private aerodrome nearby.

A small team of
gendarmes camped overnight on the mountainside to secure the crash site. It was
the first disaster involving a large passenger jet on French soil since a
Concorde crashed outside Paris nearly 15 years ago.

The A320 is one
of the world’s most used passenger jets and has a good safety record. According
to data from the Aviation Safety Network, Tuesday's crash was the third most
deadly involving the model. In 2007 a TAM Linhas Aereas A320 went off a runway
in Brazil, killing 187 people, and 162 people died when an Indonesia AirAsia
jet went down in the Java Sea in December.

The Germanwings
plane was 24 years old and powered by engines made by CFM International, a
joint venture between General Electric and France's Safran.

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