An aircraft operated by the budget airline Germanwings has crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board. There was no immediate word on a possible cause, but one of the black boxes has been recovered.
The Germanwings Airbus A-320, carrying 144 passengers and six crew members, disappeared from French flight controllers' radar screens after a rapid descent lasting eight minutes, just before 11 a.m. local time on Tuesday.
Flight 4U9525 had taken off from Barcelona just over an hour earlier, bound for the western German city of Düsseldorf. Shortly after the plane disappeared from the radar, a major rescue and recovery operation was launched, but very quickly, French President Francois Hollande contacted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, before announcing that "there are not thought to be any survivors."
Chancellor Merkel and President Joachim Gauck were among the first German politicians to react to the news of the tragedy.
"My thoughts and my condolences and the whole German government go out to those who have suddenly lost their lives, including many of our compatriots. The suffering of their families is immense," Chancellor Merkel said.
"The crash of the German plane with more than 140 people on board is a shock that plunges us in Germany, the French and the Spanish into deep sorrow," she added, before announcing that she would travel to the scene of the crash on Wednesday.
Gauck expressed similar sentiments during a visit to Peru, where he said he would break off his South American tour as a result of the crash.
"Vision of horror"
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrint rushed to the scene just hours after the news broke. After flying over the site of the crash in a remote area of the French Alps, Steinmeier described the scene as a "vision of horror." Steinmeier thanks the French recovery team for their "exemplary efforts" to recover the bodies and rubble.
Germanwings' executives held two press conferences at Cologne-Bonn airport, where the Lufthansa subsidiary has its headquarters, but they were unable to shed much light on a possible cause, saying they hoped to know more after the aircraft's "black boxes" were recovered and examined.
Later, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, who had also rushed to the scene, announced that one of the two black boxes had been recovered, but he did not specify whether it was the voice recorder or the flight data recorder.
German investigators were among the first to depart for the scene of the accident, to join the probe into the cause, which was being led by their French counterparts.
One thing that Germanwings executive Thomas Winkelmann was able to shed light on was the number of Germans on board, which he put at 67. He also said two babies were among the passengers. He also pledged that the company would do everything in its power to ensure that the cause of the crash was discovered as quickly as possible.
Separately, Spain's deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told public broadcaster TVE that there were 45 people with Spanish surnames on board the plane but it was not immediately clear how many were Spanish citizens.
Sixteen high school students among the victims
Later, the mayor of the western German town of Haltern am See, Bodo Klimpel confirmed earlier rumors that 16 high school students were on board the plane, returning home after a week-long exchange trip to Spain.
"This is certainly the darkest day in the history of our town," Klimpel said. "The city is deeply saddened ... Everyone is in a state of shock. It is the worst thing you can imagine."
Over the course of Tuesday, condolences were expressed by leaders of Germany's closest allies, beginning with Francois Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Both US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressed their condolences to Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Rajoy.
pfd/jr (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)