Operated by Lufthansa’s Germanwings budget airline, Flight 4U 9525/GWI18G, carrying 144 passengers and six crew, had taken off from Barcelona airport at 10.01am [local time] yesterday, Tuesday 24 March, and was due to land in Dusseldorf at 11.30am. Germanwings managing director Thomas Winkelmann gave a media briefing last night during which he confirmed that at 10.47am the aircraft reached its cruising altitude of 38,000ft, which it maintained for only one minute, before entering into a ‘descent phase’ down to 6,000 ft in just eight minutes, disappearing from radar and breaking contact with French air traffic controllers at 10.53am.
The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, confirmed a Victorian mother and her adult son are among the 150 victims of this tragedy.
French President Francois Hollande said “The conditions of the accident suggests that there would be no survivors.”
The plane came down on the Tête de l’Estrop mountain near Prads-Haute-Bléone, between Digne-les-Bains and Barcelonnette, north-west of Monaco. The crash site is in a remote and difficult to access area, over two hours’ walk from the nearest settlement, and inaccessible by land vehicles. Late last night [AEDT] helicopters were assembling to take in the first rescue teams for what will be a long and arduous mission.
Winkelmann said the airline will not release details of nationalities or names of those onboard until every passenger and crew member has been ‘verified in confidentiality and privacy with relatives first.’ However, it is understood that approximately 67 German nationals (including a group of 16 schoolchildren), approximately 44 Spanish nationals and possibly French and Turkish nationals and two Australians among others, were on the passenger list. The airline has confirmed there were two babies on the flight.
French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said debris from the crash had been located at 2,000 metres altitude in the Alps. According to French newspaper, Le Figaro, debris was found by a French military helicopter, deployed to search for the crash site, in the villages of Verdaches, Le Vernet, Auzet and Seyne-les-Alpes.
The flight’s captain was experienced, said Winkelmann, with more than 6,000 Airbus flying hours and over 10 years’service with both Lufthansa and Germanwings.
The aircraft was nearing the end of its commercial life, having been in service for 24 years, with Lufthansa since 1991 and with Germanwings since 2014. It was most recently serviced on Monday 23 March 2015 in Dusseldorf by Lufthansa technicians.
At 11.40pm [AEDT], Germanwings posted on its Facebook page:
“We must confirm to our deepest regret that Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf has suffered an accident over the French Alps. The flight was being operated with an Airbus A320 aircraft, and was carrying 144 passengers and six crew members.
Lufthansa and Germanwings have established a telephone hotline. The toll-free 0800 11 33 55 77 number is available to all the families of the passengers involved for care and assistance.
Everyone at Germanwings and Lufthansa is deeply shocked and saddened by these events. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the passengers and crew members.”
Germanwings has also changed its logo to black and white as a mark of respect.
Just a few hours after news broke, President Hollande addressed media, accompanied by Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia who were on a state visit to France at the time of the tragedy, and who have now cut their stay in Paris short to return immediately to Spain.
“A terrible accident has happened on French territory. An accident has happened, in circumstances which are not yet clear.
Among the victims are many Spaniards; I want to express my firmest condolences to the King of Spain, his wife, Prime Minister Rajoy and the Spanish people,” said M. Hollande.
“I know there are other victims – notably Turk and German. I do not think there are French victims, but we are not certain.
“The accident happened in an exceptionally difficult place, and it will not be possible to get to the site for several hours. I wish to thank all the security services for their efforts. The minister for the interior, Bernard Caseneuve, and for the environment, Segolene Royal, will be travelling to the site with the minister for transport. I understand that German and Spanish ministers will also be there.
I have already spoken to Chancellor Merkel, who is particularly touched.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her ‘shock’ and has cancelled all future appointments, pledging that Germany would work closely and in full co-operation with France and Spain in all investigations and efforts, and in support of victims’ families. Ms Merkel will travel to the crash site today.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has offered the support of the UK Air Accidents Investigation to help French investigators.
Germanwings, Lufthansa and Airbus teams were last night heading to the crash site and will work closely with German and French aviation authorities.