A rescue helicopter over the French Alps near the crash site of the Airbus A320 on Tuesday.
By NICOLA CLARK and DAN BILEFSKY
DIGNE-LES-BAINS, France — A German jetliner en route from Barcelona, Spain, to Düsseldorf, Germany, plunged from the sky on Tuesday and slammed into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.
Helicopters and rescue personnel swarmed into the remote, rugged area in southeastern France after the crash but found no signs of life. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said none of the 144 passengers and six crew members survived.
The authorities and executives of the airline, the budget carrier Germanwings, a subsidiary of Lufthansa, had no immediate explanation for the cause of the crash, which occurred just before 11 a.m. At a news conference Tuesday evening, Heike Birlenbach, the vice president of Lufthansa, said, “At this stage, we consider this to be an accident,” adding that everything else was speculation.
As night fell in the area, officials said they had recovered one of the jet’s so-called black boxes: the cockpit voice recorder, which captures up to two hours of the pilots’ conversations as well as other cockpit noises, including any alarms that would have sounded as the plane descended. A few hours later, they called off the search for the evening.
The plane, an Airbus A320 that carried young people, vacationers and others, crashed after an eight-minute descent from 38,000 feet, the managing director of Germanwings, Thomas Winkelmann, said at a news conference.
When French air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane at 10:53 a.m., it was flying at just 6,000 feet, Mr. Winkelmann said, and it crashed shortly afterward. The terrain in that area rises to an elevation of more than 6,000 feet.
Security personnel in Digne-les-Bains, a town close to the crash site, described a scene of almost unimaginable wreckage, with even the plane’s metal structures smashed into countless pieces.
“The airplane had completely disintegrated,” Capt. Benoit Zeisser, head of the center of operations and information for the local police in Digne-les-Bains, said late Tuesday. “There is nothing left; the area of the crash is huge.”
As emergency crews combed France’s Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department, Mr. Valls announced a judicial investigation into the crash. Many questions remained, including whether the pilots were in control of the aircraft during the descent and what would have caused a plane with an experienced pilot and solid safety record to crash in largely clear and cloudless weather.
The passengers included Germans, Spaniards, Turks and Australians, and among them was a class of 16 German high school students and two teachers who were returning from a study program near Barcelona. Some of their parents gathered at the airport in Düsseldorf, frantically waiting for news.
“This is the darkest day in the history of our city,” said Bodo Klimpel, the mayor of Haltern am See in northwestern Germany, where the 10th-grade students went to school. He added, “It is about the worst thing imaginable.”
As he spoke, people began arriving outside the Joseph König high school in the small city, bearing flowers and candles.
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According to Germanwings, at least 67 Germans were among the passengers, which included two infants. The airline was working to inform families before releasing further information about those on board.
But Barcelona’s Liceu opera house said late Tuesday that two singers who had been performing in Wagner’s “Siegfried” were on board: the baritone Oleg Bryjak and the contralto Maria Radner. Ms. Radner was traveling with her husband and baby, said Joan Corbera, a Liceu spokesman.
Two employees of Delphi, an American automotive company, and at least one employee of Bayer, a German chemical company, were also among the passengers, according to Spanish news reports. Two Australians, a mother and adult son from Victoria, died in the crash, said Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop.
At El Prat Airport outside Barcelona, dozens of relatives were kept in a waiting area, attended to by psychologists and protected by the police.
The aircraft took off at 10:01 a.m. No distress call was received, and the pilots lost radio contact with their control center, said France’s aviation authority.
Evelyne Bayle, who lives in Le Vernet, France, said she heard the engines, but the sounds did not suggest that the plane had gone into free fall. “I was on my veranda and I heard the plane flying down; the engines were making a lot of noise,” she said. “The noise that we were hearing was really progressive.”
The leaders of France, Spain and Germany made public addresses to offer comfort and reassurances that the crash would be thoroughly investigated. The National Assembly in France observed a minute of silence.
President François Hollande of France, standing with King Felipe VI of Spain, who was in Paris for a state visit, warned that access to the crash site would be very difficult. The Interior Ministry in France said that more than 400 police officers and rescue personnel had been sent to the area. Mr. Hollande said that none of the people on board were believed to be French.
“We must feel grief because this is a tragedy that happened on our soil,” Mr. Hollande said.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, who was flown over the crash scene on Tuesday, said the site was “a picture of horror.”
Wreckage was located by a French military helicopter near the town of Prads-Haute-Bléone, said Eric Héraud, a spokesman for the French aviation authority.
A French official with direct knowledge of the investigation said the search was continuing for the second black box, the flight data recorder, which tracks roughly 1,300 statistics, including the plane’s position, speed, altitude and direction.
Aviation safety experts said a descent of eight minutes from cruising altitude was slower than the three to four minutes that would normally be expected in the case of a sudden midair upset such as an aerodynamic stall, suggesting that the pilots may have been trying to maintain control of the plane as it lost altitude.
“While investigators still need to verify the data are correct, eight minutes is definitely longer compared with the experience we have had in past cases,” said Olivier Ferrante, a former crash investigator for the French Bureau of Investigations and Analyses who is now an adviser on aviation safety for the European Commission in Brussels.
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In the 2009 crash of an Air France flight over the Atlantic, the plane, an Airbus A330, took just three and a half minutes to fall from 38,000 feet to the surface of the ocean, Mr. Ferrante said.
Regarding the images of the debris field, Mr. Ferrante said the small size of the pieces suggested the plane hit the ground at a very high speed.
Frédéric Atger, a spokesman for Météo France, which monitors weather across the country, said that the conditions had been “particularly calm” in the area. “The visibility was good, and there were little clouds at low altitudes,” he said.
Bruno Lambert, a mountain guide who lives in Chanolles, a hamlet in the Prads-Haute-Bléone municipality, said the area of the crash was sparsely populated with steep mountain terrain.
The type of aircraft that crashed, an Airbus A320 single-aisle jet, is a workhorse of many airline fleets, with more than 5,600 in service around the world.
The aircraft’s safety record has been very good, but not spotless. Since entering service in 1988, A320 aircraft have been involved in 12 fatal accidents, according to Ascend, a London-based aviation consulting firm.
Airline officials said that while the plane that crashed was an older model — it was delivered new to Lufthansa in 1991 — its maintenance history was unremarkable. A routine maintenance inspection had been performed Monday, said Martin Riecken, a spokesman for Lufthansa in Frankfurt. A more extensive check had been done in the summer of 2013.
Mr. Riecken confirmed that a minor repair had been made Monday to the plane’s front nose gear door — a flap that closes during flight to cover the retracted landing gear — but stressed that even if it had not been fixed, “this would not be something relevant to flight safety.”
Germanwings, based in Cologne, was founded in 2002 and acquired by Lufthansa in 2009. It has since grown to become Lufthansa’s main operator for domestic and short-distance European flights from cities other than the hubs of Munich and Frankfurt.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her deep sympathy for the families of the victims, saying that the crash was a “terrible shock.”
“I feel terribly sorry because so many people died in this disaster,” she said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with these people.” Ms. Merkel said she would fly to southern France on Wednesday to meet the authorities there.
At the Düsseldorf airport Tuesday afternoon, a small crowd of people stood around a television set at a cafe in the departure area and watched Germanwings officials give a news conference. The viewers’ expressions were somber and they talked quietly among themselves.
Among them were Patrick Huber, 25, and Helena Henkel, 26, who wore backpacks and said they were on their way to Barcelona for an 11-day vacation.
“On Germanwings,” Mr. Huber said, with a nervous laugh. But he said they would fly anyway. “Still,” Ms. Henkel added, “I’ll be happy when we land.”
The crash is the deadliest on French territory since a 1981 crash of a Yugoslavian airliner in Corsica, which killed 180. The deadliest one in France occurred in 1974, when a Turkish Airlines DC-10 crashed outside Paris, killing more than 335 people.