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[SEYNE, France] French helicopters searched for bodies and wreckage of the Airbus A320 that crashed in rugged terrain in the French Alps while en route to Germany from Spain.
About 600 gendarmes, firemen and medical staff, including about 10 forensic experts, are involved in the efforts, with 50 military police trying to find a ground route to the mountain crash site. Teams in six helicopters are seeking to recover the second black box from Germanwings Flight 9525. None of the bodies of the 150 passengers have been evacuated from the site.
"What was striking as we flew over the area yesterday was that the debris was smoking," Gen David Galtier told journalists Wednesday in Seyne, France. "The terrain is very mountainous, very steep."
The A320 flown by Deutsche Lufthansa's low-cost unit fell to Earth after a rapid descent from cruising altitude while bound for Dusseldorf, Germany, from Barcelona. There was no communication between ground controllers and the cockpit crew as the plane came down, and no distress signal suggesting a technical fault or act of terrorism, French and German aviation authorities said.
Investigators are racing to establish the cause of a crash that didn't follow any typical disaster pattern. The aircraft was flying straight and level, typically the safest part of a journey, on a busy route in daylight and good weather.
The initial phase of the recovery efforts near Prads-Haute- Bleone in Provence is focused on collecting elements that can assist in the identification of the bodies.
"The site has been cordoned off," Brice Robin, Marseille state prosecutor, told journalists. The work on the crash site "will take several weeks," he said.
Recovery efforts have been complicated by the fact that debris from the crash is strewn over an area of about 7 1/2 acres (three hectares) on the sides of mountains. With no helicopter landing area, search personnel have had to be lowered to the site.
Helicopters are taking off and landing every few minutes in Seyne, against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
"As we flew over the area and saw the plane in a thousand pieces we knew there was very little hope of survivors," said Christophe Castener, a member of parliament from the region.
The passenger list showed a cross-section of Europeans and other nationalities, Pierre-Henry Brandet, spokesman for the French interior ministry, told BFM TV.
In addition to Germans and Spaniards, who made up most of the passengers, there were Argentinians, Turks, Australians and Britons on board, he said.
European politicians suspended their agendas to coordinate the crisis response. French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will be traveling to the region on Wednesday to witness the salvage mission. Families of passengers are expected to visit the site Wednesday.
It's too early to speculate on possible causes without more information, said John Cox, the head of aviation safety consultant Safety Operating Systems in Washington.
Investigators will examine the debris field to see if the plane came apart in flight or flew into the ground, he said. The size of the wreckage also can be telling, with smaller pieces meaning a higher-speed impact.
"All scenarios are being examined," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters Wednesday. "In the absence of information from the black boxes, it's difficult to focus on any single hypothesis." Galtier said the black box with voice recordings has been taken to Paris and police colleagues said they hoped to find the data recorder on Wednesday. The voice recorder should produce some leads, he added.
"It's very rare that the black boxes are completely unusable after a crash," he said. "We hope that it will offer some explanation." Germanwings said contact was lost at 10:53 am, less than 10 minutes after the aircraft had reached cruising altitude. Air-traffic controllers didn't give approval for the descent, Germanwings said at a press conference in Cologne.
French air traffic controllers in the region declared an emergency at 10:47 am as they saw Flight 9525 descending rapidly, said Eric Heraud, a spokesman for French civil aviation authority DGAC.
The plane fell in a controlled descent from 38,000 feet (11,600 meters) to 5,000 feet while flying over the town of Barcelonnette in the Alpes de Haute-Provence region, he said.
The crash is the deadliest on French soil since 1981, when a DC-9 jetliner flown by Slovenia's Adria Airways went down near Mont San-Pietro and killed 180 people, according to data compiled by Aviation Safety Network, a project of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.
France's only accident this century even approaching the scope of the Germanwings disaster occurred in 2000, when an Air France Concorde struck runway debris on takeoff and was engulfed in flames, killing all 109 people on the supersonic jet and four on the ground.