PARIS/SEYNE-LES-ALPES, FRANCE – A black box recovered from the scene and pulverized pieces of debris strewn across Alpine mountainsides held clues to what caused a German jetliner to take an unexplained eight-minute dive Tuesday midway through a flight from Spain to Germany, apparently killing all 150 people on board.
In Tokyo, the Foreign Ministry said two Japanese men were on the passenger list: Satoshi Nagata, believed to be in his 60s, and Junichi Sato, 42, both of whom were living in the German city of Duesseldorf.
Seika Corp., a Tokyo-based machinery trading firm, said Sato, worked for its European subsidiary as a deputy manager.
Meanwhile, Kao Corp., a Tokyo-based cosmetics company, said two European employees working for its regional subsidiary were on the passenger list.
The victims also included two babies, two opera singers and 16 German high school students and their teachers returning from an exchange trip to Spain. It was the deadliest crash in France in decades.
The Airbus A320 operated by Germanwings, a budget subsidiary of Lufthansa, was less than an hour from landing in Duesseldorf on a flight from Barcelona when it unexpectedly went into a rapid descent. The pilots sent out no distress call and had lost radio contact with their control center, France’s aviation authority said, deepening the mystery.
Helicopters surveying the scattered debris lifted off at daybreak, hours ahead of the expected arrival of bereaved families and the French, German and Spanish leaders. Crews were making their way slowly to the remote crash site through fresh snow and rain, threading their way to the craggy ravine.
“The site is a picture of horror. The grief of the families and friends is immeasurable,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after being flown over the crash scene. “We must now stand together. We are united in our great grief.”
It took investigators hours to reach the site, led by mountain guides to the craggy ravine in the southern French Alps, not far from the Italian border and the French Riviera.
Video shot from a helicopter and aired by BFM TV showed rescuers walking in the crevices of a rocky mountainside scattered with plane parts. Photos of the crash site showed white flecks of debris across a mountain and larger airplane body sections with windows. A helicopter crew that landed briefly in the area saw no signs of life, French officials said.
“Everything is pulverized. The largest pieces of debris are the size of a small car. No one can access the site from the ground,” said Gilbert Sauvan, president of the general council, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.
“This is pretty much the worst thing you can imagine,” said Bodo Klimpel, mayor of the German town of Haltern, rent with sorrow after losing 16 tenth graders and their two teachers.
The White House and the airline chief said there was no sign that terrorism was involved, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged reporters not to speculate on the cause.
“We still don’t know much beyond the bare information on the flight, and there should be no speculation on the cause of the crash,” she said in Berlin. “All that will be investigated thoroughly.”
Lufthansa Vice President Heike Birlenbach told reporters in Barcelona that for now “we say it is an accident.”
In Washington, the White House said American officials were in contact with their French, Spanish and German counterparts. “There is no indication of a nexus to terrorism at this time,” said U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy were to visit the site Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the cockpit voice recorder was retrieved from the site, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
“The black box is damaged and must be reconstituted in the coming hours in order to be usable,” Cazeneuve told RTL radio.
Key to the investigation is what happened during the minutes 10:30 and 10:31 a.m., said Segolene Royal, a top government minister whose portfolio includes transport. From then, controllers were unable to make contact with the plane.
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 heard in the cockpit. The flight data recorder, which Cazeneuve said had not been retrieved yet, captures 25 hours’ worth of information on the position and condition of almost every major part in a plane.
Investigators retrieving data from the recorder will focus first “on the human voices, the conversations” followed by the cockpit sounds, Transport Secretary Alain Vidalies told Europe 1 radio. He said the government planned to release information gleaned from the black box as soon as it can be verified.
Germanwings is low-cost carrier owned by Lufthansa, Germany’s biggest airline, and serves mostly European destinations. Tuesday’s crash was its first involving passenger deaths since it began operating in 2002.
Germanwings said 144 passengers and six crew members were on board. Authorities said 67 Germans were believed among the victims, including the 16 high school students and two opera singers, as well as many Spaniards, the two Japanese, two Australians and one person each from the Netherlands, Turkey and Denmark.
The plane left Barcelona Airport at 10:01 a.m. and had reached its cruising height of 38,000 feet (11,000 meters) when it suddenly went into an eight-minute descent to just over 6,000 feet, Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann told reporters in Cologne.
“We cannot say at the moment why our colleague went into the descent, and so quickly, and without previously consulting air traffic control,” said Germanwings’ director of flight operations, Stefan-Kenan Scheib.
At 10:30, the plane lost radio contact with the control center but “never declared a distress alert,” said Eric Heraud of the French Civil Aviation Authority.
The plane crashed at an altitude of about 6,550 feet at Meolans-Revels, near the popular ski resort of Pra Loup. The site is 430 miles (700 km) south-southeast of Paris.
“It was a deafening noise. I thought it was an avalanche, although it sounded slightly different. It was short noise and lasted just a few seconds,” said Sandrine Boisse, the president of the Pra Loup tourism office.
Winkelmann said the pilot, whom he did not name, had more than 10 years’ experience working for Germanwings and its parent airline Lufthansa.