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Survivors unlikely after jet carrying 150 people crashes in French Alps

Last Updated Mar 27, 2015 at 4:06 pm EST

Timeline of the Germanwings Airbus 320 that crashed in mountainous France on Tuesday. CNN

A Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crashed Tuesday in the foothills of the Alps in southeastern France with at least 150 people on board, according to Germanwings managing director Oliver Wagner.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told reporters he fears all those aboard the flight from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany — 144 passengers and six crew members, according to Germanwings — may be dead. Germanwings CEO Thomas Winkelmann said there were two babies on board the flight. It was not clear whether they were included in the 144 passengers.

French President Francois Hollande also said no survivors were expected. The plane crashed near Digne-les-Bains, in the Alpes de Haute Provence region, Valls said.

French authorities have called off the search for the night on Tuesday after it “fell on hard-to-reach area.”

Lt. Col. Simon-Pierre Delannoy said on BFM television that the conditions for the search had become to difficult.

Helicopters stopped flying over the area at nightfall and the complex search is expected to resume Wednesday morning.

“The conditions of the accident are not yet clear but lead us to believe there will be no survivors,” Hollande said.

Spain’s King Felipe VI, who cut short a state visit to France as news of the crash broke, said there was a “high number of Spaniards, Germans and Turks” on the doomed Germanwings flight.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted that he will return to Madrid, put together a “crisis team” and send a minister to France.

Relatives of those believed to be on the flight, fearing the worst, have started to gather at Barcelona airport, where a crisis center has been set up.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that “we don’t know much about the flight and the crash yet. And we don’t know the cause.”

Merkel said that she’s been in touch with France’s President and Spain’s Prime Minister, with all agreeing to “help each other in any form.”

There were “many” Germans on the plane, she told a news conference, adding that the suffering of the families concerned was “incredible.” “We have to think of the victims and their families and their friends,” she said.

Merkel said she was sending two ministers to France on Tuesday and would travel to the crash site on Wednesday to see it for herself.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the German government had set up a crisis center in response to the “terrible news” and was in close contact with the French authorities.

“In these difficult hours, our thoughts are with those who have to fear that their close ones are among the passengers and crew,” he said.

Mountainous terrain

Hollande warned that it could take some hours for the emergency services to reach the remote crash site.

The plane crashed in mountainous terrain near the Prads-Haute-Bleone community, French police Capt. Benoit Zeisser said.

Because of the terrain, it will be a difficult site for rescuers to access, Zeisser said. A police helicopter is in the area, he said.

The sports hall of a local school has been freed up to take in bodies of the victims of the plane crash, Sandrine Julien from the town hall of Seyne-les-Alpes village told CNN.

The school remains open, she said. Seyne-les-Alpes is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the crash site.

Mountain guide Yvan Theaudin told BFMTV the crash was in the area of the Massif des Trois Eveches, where there are peaks of nearly 3,000 meters. It’s very snowy in the area and the weather is worsening, he said, which could complicate search and rescue efforts.

Responders may have to use skis to reach the crash site on the ground, he said.

The crash site is closer to Barcelona than Dusseldorf, but well into the flight. Crashes midflight are rare, as most happen near takeoff or landing, CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo said.

Midflight accidents are rare

According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, just under 16% of aviation accidents occur during the cruise portion — meaning after the climb and before descent — of a flight. Accidents are more common during takeoff and landing.

The twin-engine Airbus A320s, which entered service in 1988, is generally considered among the most reliable aircraft, aviation analyst David Soucie said.

Plane dropped 14,000 feet in six minutes, online flight tracker shows

It is too early to know what happened, but Schiavo said there were some clues that rescuers and investigators will look at.

First is the speed of the jet’s descent.

According to an online flight tracker that records altitude, the plane was at 38,000 feet, and six minutes later had dropped to 24,000 feet — a drop of 14,000 feet.

This could indicate that there was not a stall, but that the pilot was still controlling the plane to some extent, Schiavo said.

Had there been an engine stall, the plane would have crashed in a matter of minutes, she said.

That small piece of information about the descent means that the pilot could have been trying to make an emergency landing, or that the plane was gliding with the pilot’s guidance, Schiavo said.

A scenario where the plane was gliding is potentially more dangerous because wide fields for landing would be hard to come by in the mountains, she said.

Mayor: Area of crash site is sparsely populated

The mayor of the French community of Barcelonnette, near the crash site, told CNN affiliate BFMTV that emergency responders had been sent to the crash area. A helicopter has also been deployed to try to locate the precise crash site, he said.

The valley is long and snow-covered, and access is difficult, Barcelonnette Mayor Pierre Martin-Charpenel said. It was well populated in the 19th century but there are almost no people living there now, he said.

It’s an out-of-the-way place with magnificent scenery, he said.

Germanwings is a low-cost airline owned by the Lufthansa Group. Lufthansa has gradually been transferring many of its short-haul flights to Germanwings, with the exception of flights operated from its Frankfurt and Munich hubs.

Founded in 2002, Germanwings became a wholly owned Lufthansa subsidiary in 2009.

France plane crash
A Germanwings Airbus A320 passenger plane carrying 148 people crashed Tuesday in mountainous southeastern France, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told reporters. CNN
France Plane Crash
An Airbus A320 plane operated by Germanwings crashed Tuesday in southeastern France near Digne les Bains, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said. He said he fears those aboard — 142 passengers and eight crew members — may be dead. The plane was headed from Barcelona, Spain, to Dusseldorf, Germany. CNN
France plane crash
A Germanwings Airbus A320 passenger plane carrying 148 people crashed Tuesday in mountainous southeastern France, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told reporters. CNN
France Plane Crash
Timeline of the Germanwings Airbus 320 that crashed in mountainous France on Tuesday. CNN
Dimensions of the Germanwings Airbus 320 that crashed in mountainous France on Tuesday. CNN
Dimensions of the Germanwings Airbus 320 that crashed in mountainous France on Tuesday. CNN
Germanwings
Germanwings Airbus A320 landing at Split Airport
Ballota. SOURCE: Creative Commons

CNN’s Mariano Castillo, Hala Gorani, Laura Akhoun, Stephanie Halasz, Lindsay Isaac, Josh Levs, Richard Greene, Karl Penhaul and Sara Delgrossi contributed to this report.

With files from Toronto staff