SEYNE-LES-ALPES/PARIS – Investigators have retrieved cockpit voice recordings from one of the black boxes of the German Airbus plane that crashed into the Alps, killing everyone onboard, officials said on Wednesday.
The New York Times reported that evidence from the recordings showed that one of the pilots left the cockpit and could not get back in before the flight went down.
“The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door and there is no answer,” an unnamed investigator told the Times, citing the recordings. “And then he hits the door stronger and no answer. There is never an answer.”
“You can hear he is trying to smash the door down,” the investigator added.
The retrieval of the recordings came as French President Francois Hollande, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Spain’s Mariano Rajoy traveled to the crash site in a remote French Alpine region to pay tribute to the 150 victims, mostly Germany and Spanish.
While Hollande promised that authorities would not rest until the causes of the crash were known, France’s BEA air incident investigation bureau said it was still far too early to draw meaningful conclusions on why the plane, operated by the Germanwings budget arm of Lufthansa, went down.
“We have just been able to extract a useable audio data file,” BEA director Remi Jouty told a news conference at its headquarters outside Paris.
“We have not yet been able to study and to establish an exact timing for all the sounds and words heard on this file,” he said.
He expected initial analysis in “a matter of days” but that rough read-out could be subject to errors and that more work would be needed for a full interpretation.
Although he said “words” had been heard on the tape, Jouty would not confirm whether that meant the Airbus A320’s pilots were conscious and he gave no details of the recordings.
The New York Times quoted a senior military official involved in the investigation as saying the cockpit audio showed “very smooth, very cool” conversation between the pilots in the early part of the flight. The audio then indicated one of the pilots left the cockpit.
“We don’t know yet the reason why one of the guys went out,” the official added. “But what is sure is that at the very end of the flight, the other pilot is alone and does not open the door.”
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve earlier said a terror attack was not the main hypothesis being worked on. Jouty said, however, that no theory could be excluded at this point.
While stressing it was too early to form a clear picture, he ruled out a midair explosion having taken place and said the crash scenario did not appear to be linked to depressurisation.
Jouty said the second black box had not yet been found but could not confirm Hollande’s remark that its casing had. Among the new details, he said the airliner had flown in a straight line directly into the mountain — but would not say whether that suggested at the hand of a pilot or auto-pilot.
Germanwings said 72 Germans were killed in Tuesday’s crash, the first major air passenger disaster on French soil since the 2000 Concorde accident just outside Paris. Spanish officials said 51 Spaniards were among the victims.
As well as Germans and Spaniards, victims included three Americans, a Moroccan and citizens of Britain, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Colombia, Denmark, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Iran and the Netherlands, officials said. However, DNA checks to identify them could take weeks, the French government said.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr described the crash as incomprehensible and said Lufthansa has never lost a plane during the cruise stage of flight.
“This represents the darkest hours in the 60 year history of our Lufthansa group. We are still in a state of shock,” he said.
Hollande, Merkel and Rajoy thanked search teams and met residents in the village of Seyne-les-Alpes, where the salvaging operation has been set up.
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