- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

SEYNE-LES-ALPES, France (AP) — French investigators cracked open the badly damaged black box of a German jetliner on Wednesday and sealed off the rugged Alpine crash site where 150 people died when their plane slammed into a mountain.

The cockpit voice recorder was being mined by investigators for clues into what sent the Germanwings Airbus 320 into a mid-flight dive Tuesday after pilots lost radio contact over the southern French Alps during a routine flight from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.

Helicopters surveying the scattered debris lifted off at daybreak, and crews traveled slowly over land to the remote crash site through fresh snow and rain, threading their way to the craggy ravine. Bereaved families and the French, German and Spanish leaders were expected later Wednesday.

“The black box is damaged and must be reconstituted in the coming hours in order to be useable,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told RTL radio.

Key to the investigation is what happened the two minutes of 10:30 a.m. and 10:31 a.m., said Segolene Royal, a top government minister whose portfolio includes transport. From then on, air traffic 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 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.

Royal and Cazeneuve both emphasized that terrorism is considered unlikely in the crash that scattered shards of pulverized debris across several acres (hectares).

The crash left pieces of wreckage “so small and shiny they appear like patches of snow on the mountainside,” said Pierre-Henry Brandet, the Interior Ministry spokesman, after flying over the debris field.

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 said 144 passengers and six crew members were on board the flight. The victims included two babies, two opera singers, an Australian mother and her adult son vacationing together, and 16 German high school students and their two teachers returning from an exchange trip to Spain.

“Nothing will be the way it was at our school anymore,” said Ulrich Wessel, the principal of Joseph Koenig High School in the German town of Haltern.

“I was asked yesterday how many students there are at the high school in Haltern, and I said 1,283 without thinking — then had to say afterward, unfortunately, 16 fewer since yesterday. And I find that so terrible,” he added.

In Seyne-les-Alpes, locals offered to host bereaved families because of a shortage of rooms to rent, said the town’s mayor, Francis Hermitte.

The plane, operated by Germanwings, a budget subsidiary of Lufthansa, was less than an hour from landing in Duesseldorf when it unexpectedly went into a rapid eight-minute descent. The pilots sent out no distress call, France’s aviation authority said.

Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr, himself a pilot, said he found the crash of a plane piloted by two experienced captains “inexplicable.”

In Spain, flags flew at half-staff on government buildings and a minute of silence was held in government offices across the country. Parliament canceled its normal Wednesday session.

Barcelona’s Liceu opera house held two minutes of silence at noon in homage to two German opera singers — Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner — who took the flight after performing at the theater last weekend.

In an eerie coincidence, an Air France flight from Paris to Saigon crashed just a few kilometers (miles) from the same spot in the French Alps in 1953, killing all 42 people on board.

___

Hinnant reported from Paris. AP reporters Kristen Grieshaber in Haltern, Germany; David Rising in Berlin; Alan Clendenning in Madrid; and AP Airlines writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.


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