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French Officials Describe Smoldering Wreckage At Germanwings Crash Site


We're learning more about the plane that went down over the French Alps today, and that's where we begin this hour. All 150 passengers and crew on that flight died. The Airbus A320 was operated by the carrier Germanwings and was flying from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany. The crash is being investigated as an accident. A U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman says there's no indication of terrorism. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who's been following this story from Paris, joins us now. And, Eleanor, what more have you learned about what led to the crash?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, this was just a routine flight, Audie, a daily flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf that took off about 10 o'clock this morning. It was at cruising altitude and about halfway through the flight at 10:45 it began descending - not falling, say investigators, but descending very fast. It did not issue a distress call, and all of a sudden all contact was lost. It went down after about 45 minutes of flying time in a very remote mountainous area in the French Alps. The French interior minister says one of the flight recorders has been recovered. Now, investigators right now are working on the theory of an accident. France has mobilized huge emergency crews and helicopters. Audie, this is a skiing area. It's still wintertime here. It's very high, very cold, jagged rock. It's very difficult to get to. There's been special police and military, who know this mountainous terrain, sent climbing in. Pictures of it show, like, a ravine with just scattered debris. And one French official who flew over it described smoldering wreckage and a plane that had been ripped apart. And the interior minister says it could take days to recover bodies.

CORNISH: Eleanor, tell us more about the carrier, Germanwings, and what kind of safety record does it have?

BEARDSLEY: Well, this carrier - it's the low-cost subsidiary of the German national carrier Lufthansa. Now, a lot of the big European airlines have budget carriers to compete with the cut-rate airlines like easyJet and Ryanair. Germanwings had an impeccable safety record. It had had no accidents with passenger deaths until today. The CEO of the company gave a press conference. He said the plane was in good shape. It was fully inspected just yesterday, on Monday. The plane was 24 years old, but analysts are saying that's not at all old for a plane. The pilot was a 14-year Lufthansa veteran with 6,000 hours of flying time.

CORNISH: Eleanor, as we mentioned earlier, there are no survivors. What more have you learned about the passengers?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Audie, there were 150 people on that flight, including six crew members, 67 German citizens and probably around 45 Spanish and some Turkish people. There were 16 children and two babies. And many of those children were from a high school class in northwest Germany, and they were on an exchange program in Spain. And they were just on their way home. And the mayor of the town where they were from - his name is Bodo Klimpel - he spoke today at a press conference, and he was clearly emotional. He said the town was in shock. And you can hear him here speaking through an interpreter.


BODO KLIMPEL: (Through interpreter) This is worse than anything you can possibly imagine.

CORNISH: Eleanor, how far along are authorities in the recovery mission?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the interior minister says that black box found will be examined tonight. Now, it's dark here now, Audie, and bad weather is coming in, but they do have some search teams out there that will spend the night at altitude to start in the morning as early as possible. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will arrive tomorrow, and she will visit the site with the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy and French President Francois Hollande. And Germanwings is talking about trying to bring family members of the victims up to the site, but it's not known yet whether that'll be possible.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Eleanor, thank you.

BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.