Germanwings has been forced to cancel seven flights out of Dusseldorf because some crew members felt they were unfit to fly after the French Alps plane crash.
Carsten Spohr, chief executive of the budget airline’s parent company Lufthansa, said he understood the crew members’ sentiments.
“One must not forget: many of our Germanwings crews have known crew members who were on board the crashed plane,” he said.
“It is now more important to ensure psychological assistance if needed. And we will get back to a full flight operation as soon as possible then. But for me, this is rather secondary now.”
Florian Graenzdoerffer, Lufthansa’s North Rhine Westphalia spokesman, said: “I can’t tell you any details because this is a personal decision and in our business we have an agreement if a crew feels unfit to fly then we respect this.”
Meanwhile a “black box” recovered from the scene and pulverised pieces of debris strewn across Alpine mountainsides held clues to what caused the Germanwings Airbus A320 to take an unexplained eight-minute dive mid-way through a flight from Spain to Germany yesterday, apparently killing all 150 people on board.
The victims included two babies, two opera singers and 16 German school pupils and their teachers returning from an exchange trip to Spain. It was the deadliest crash in France in decades.
Two Japanese citizens were also believed to have been on the plane, Tokyo said.
The plane was less than an hour from landing in Duesseldorf on a flight from Barcelona when it unexpectedly went into a rapid descent. The pilots sent out no distress call and had lost radio contact with their control centre, France’s aviation authority said, deepening the mystery.
While investigators searched through debris from Flight 9525 on steep and desolate slopes, families across Europe reeled with shock and grief. Sobbing relatives at both airports were led away by airport workers and crisis counsellors.
“The site is a picture of horror. The grief of the families and friends is immeasurable,” German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after being flown over the crash scene. “We must now stand together. We are united in our great grief.”
It took investigators hours to reach the site, led by mountain guides to the craggy ravine in the southern French Alps, not far from the Italian border and the French Riviera.
Video shot from a helicopter and aired by BFM TV showed rescuers walking in the crevices of a rocky mountainside scattered with plane parts. Photos of the crash site showed white flecks of debris across a mountain and larger airplane body sections with windows. A helicopter crew that landed briefly in the area saw no signs of life, French officials said.
“Everything is pulverised. The largest pieces of debris are the size of a small car. No one can access the site from the ground,” Gilbert Sauvan, president of the general council, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, said.
“This is pretty much the worst thing you can imagine,” said Bodo Klimpel, mayor of the German town of Haltern, rent with sorrow after losing the 16 schoolchildren and their two teachers.
The White House and the airline chief said there was no sign that terrorism was involved and German chancellor Angela Merkel said: “We still don’t know much beyond the bare information on the flight, and there should be no speculation on the cause of the crash.”
Lufthansa vice president Heike Birlenbach said that for now “we say it is an accident”.
In Washington, officials were in contact with their French, Spanish and German counterparts. “There is no indication of a nexus to terrorism at this time,” said US National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
Mrs Merkel, French president Francois Hollande and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy will visit the site today.
French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said a black box had been located at the crash site and “will be immediately investigated”. He did not say whether it was the flight data recorder or the cockpit voice recorder.
The two devices – in reality, orange boxes designed to survive extreme heat and pressure – should provide investigators with a second-by-second timeline of the plane’s flight.
Germanwings is low-cost carrier owned by Lufthansa, Germany’s biggest airline, and serves mostly European destinations. Yesterday’s crash was its first involving passenger deaths since it began operating in 2002. The Germanwings logo, normally maroon and yellow, was blacked out on its Twitter feed.
Lufthansa’s Mr Spohr called it the “blackest day of our company’s 60-year history”, but insisted that flying “remains after this terrible day the safest mode of transport”.
Germanwings said 144 passengers and six crew members were on board. Authorities said 67 Germans were believed among the victims, including the 16 teenagers and two opera singers, as well as many Spaniards, two Australians and one person each from the Netherlands, Turkey and Denmark.
Contralto Maria Radner was returning to Germany with her husband and baby after performing in Wagner’s Siegfried, according to Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. Bass baritone Oleg Bryjak had appeared in the same opera, according to the opera house in Duesseldorf.
The plane left Barcelona Airport at 10.01am local time and had reached its cruising height of 38,000 feet when it suddenly went into an eight-minute descent to just over 6,000 feet, Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann said.
“We cannot say at the moment why our colleague went into the descent, and so quickly, and without previously consulting air traffic control,” said Germanwings’ director of flight operations Stefan-Kenan Scheib.
At 10.30, the plane lost radio contact with the control centre but “never declared a distress alert”, Eric Heraud of the French Civil Aviation Authority said.
The plane crashed at an altitude of about 6,550 feet at Meolans-Revels, near the popular ski resort of Pra Loup, 430 miles south south-east of Paris.
“It was a deafening noise. I thought it was an avalanche, although it sounded slightly different. It was short noise and lasted just a few seconds,” Sandrine Boisse, president of the Pra Loup tourism office, said.