France opens black box, hoping to unlock jet crash mystery
SEYNE-LES-ALPES, France (AP) French investigators cracked open the mangled black box of a German jet on Wednesday, hoping the cockpit recordings inside would help unlock the mystery of what caused the plane to drop unexpectedly and smash into a rugged Alpine mountain, killing all 150 people on board.
The orange cockpit voice recorder dented, twisted and scarred by the impact is considered the key to understanding why the Germanwings A320 lost radio contact with air traffic controllers over the southern French Alps during a routine flight Tuesday from Barcelona to Duesseldorf before crashing. French officials said terrorism appeared unlikely, and Germany's top security official said Wednesday there was no evidence of foul play.
Helicopters surveying the scattered debris lifted off at daybreak for a look at the craggy ravine. Emergency crews, meanwhile, traveled slowly over the steep, rocky terrain to the remote high-altitude crash site through snow and rain.
The crash left pieces of wreckage "so small and shiny they appear like patches of snow on the mountainside," said Pierre-Henry Brandet, the Interior Ministry spokesman, after flying over the debris field.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived by helicopter on a mountain meadow whipped by strong winds and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy joined them in the French town of Seynes-les-Alpes. Most of the victims were German and Spanish.
Investigators were zooming in on two key minutes Tuesday 10:30-10:31 a.m. said Segolene Royal, a top government minister whose portfolio includes transport. From then on, air traffic controllers were unable to make contact with the plane.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio the "black box is damaged and must be reconstituted in the coming hours in order to be useable."
The voice recorder takes audio feeds from four microphones within the cockpit and records all the conversations between the pilots, air traffic controllers as well as any noises in the cockpit. Photos released by France's air accident investigation agency BEA appeared to show that the cylinder which holds the memory is apparently intact.
The flight data recorder, which Cazeneuve said has not been retrieved yet, captures 25 hours' worth of information on the position and condition of almost every major part in a plane.
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday that "there is no hard evidence that the crash was intentionally brought about by third parties." Royal and Cazeneuve also emphasized that terrorism was considered unlikely.
The plane, operated by Germanwings, a budget subsidiary of Lufthansa, was less than an hour from landing in Duesseldorf when it unexpectedly went into a rapid, eight-minute descent. The pilots sent out no distress call, France's aviation authority said.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr, himself a pilot, said he found the crash of a plane piloted by two experienced captains "inexplicable."
Investigators retrieving data from the recorder will focus first "on the human voices, the conversations" followed by the cockpit sounds, French Transport Secretary Alain Vidalies told Europe 1 radio.
Investigators will use the cockpit voice and flight data recorders to map out and focus their work, said Alan E. Diehl, a former air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board and a former scientist for human performance at the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Both will point you in directions of what is critical," Diehl says. "Based on what you learn from the recorders, you might focus on key pieces of wreckage."
The four possible causes of any crash are human error, mechanical problems, weather, criminal activity or a combination of two or more. Diehl says investigators will essentially work backward.
"You're usually dealing with a jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces missing," he says. "You start eliminating things that didn't happen."
Lufthansa said two charter flights to France will be made available for family members who want to get as close as they can to the crash site. Locals in Seyne-les-Alpes offered to host the bereaved families because of a shortage of rooms to rent.
Germanwings cancelled several flights Wednesday because some crews declared themselves unfit to fly after losing colleagues.
"The management completely understands this, because we are a small family. Everyone knows everybody inside Germanwings, so it is a big shock for employees," said CEO Thomas Winkelmann.
He said the company had already contacted most families of the victims and was trying to reach the rest. He said victims included 72 German citizens, 35 Spaniards, two people each from Australia, Argentina, Iran, Venezuela and the U.S. and one person each from Britain, the Netherlands, Colombia, Mexico, Japan, Denmark, Belgium and Israel.
Some could have dual nationalities, for Spain's government said 51 citizens had died in the crash.
The victims included two babies, two opera singers, an Australian mother and son vacationing together, and 16 German high school students and their two teachers returning from an exchange program in Spain.
"Nothing will be the way it was at our school anymore," said Ulrich Wessel, the principal of Joseph Koenig High School in the German town of Haltern.
"I was asked yesterday how many students there are at the high school in Haltern, and I said 1,283 without thinking then had to say afterward, unfortunately, 16 fewer since yesterday. And I find that so terrible," he added.
Paul Andrew Bramley, a 28-year-old from Britain, had been studying hospitality and hotel management in Lucerne and was flying to meet his mother before starting an internship on April 1.
"He was the best son. He was my world," said his mother, Carol Bramley.
In Spain, flags flew at half-staff on government buildings and a minute of silence was held in government offices across the country. Parliament canceled its Wednesday session.
Barcelona's Liceu opera house held two minutes of silence at noon to honor two German opera singers Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner who took the flight after performing at the theater last weekend.
In an eerie coincidence, an Air France flight from Paris to Saigon crashed close to the same spot in the French Alps in 1953, killing all 42 people on board.
Hinnant reported from Paris. AP reporters Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton in Paris; Kristen Grieshaber in Haltern, Germany; David Rising and Geir Moulson in Berlin; Alan Clendenning and Jorge Sainz in Madrid; and AP Airlines writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.