Cockpit voice recorder to offer vital clues into plane crash as third party involvement ruled out

Sad: Debris from the plane is seen on the mountainside
Sad: Debris from the plane is seen on the mountainside

A cockpit voice recorder badly damaged when a German plane slammed into an Alpine mountainside and a crucial two-minute span when the pilot lost contact offer vital clues into the crash's cause, officials said today.

All 150 people on board were killed in the crash of the Germanwings Airbus 320 in the southern French Alps.

Helicopters surveying the scattered debris lifted off at daybreak, hours ahead of the expected arrival of bereaved families and the French, German and Spanish leaders. The flight from Spain to Germany went into an unexplained eight-minute descent before crashing.

Crews were making their way slowly to the remote crash site through fresh snow and rain, threading their way to the craggy ravine. Yesterday, the cockpit voice recorder was retrieved from the site, French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.

"The black box is damaged and must be reconstituted in the coming hours in order to be useable," Mr Cazeneuve told RTL radio.

Key to the investigation is what happened during the minutes 10.30am and 10.31a.m., said Segolene Royal, a top government minister whose portfolio includes transport. From then, 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 heard in the cockpit. The flight data recorder, which Mr 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.

Ms Royal and Mr Cazeneuve both emphasised that terrorism is considered unlikely.

Investigators retrieving data from the recorder will focus first "on the human voices, the conversations" followed by the cockpit sounds, Transport Secretary Alain Vidalies said. He said the government planned to release information gleaned from the black box as soon as it can be verified.

Victims included two babies, two opera singers, an Australian mother and her adult son holidaying together, and 16 German high school students and their teachers returning from an exchange trip to Spain.

In Seyne-les-Alpes, locals had 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 Dusseldorf on a flight from Barcelona when it unexpectedly went into a rapid eight-minute descent. The pilots sent out no distress call and had lost radio contact with their control centre, France's aviation authority said.

Germanwings said 144 passengers and six crew members were on board.

An Air France flight from Paris to Saigon crashed just a few miles from the same spot in 1953, killing all 42 people on board.

In Spain, flags flew at half-mast on government buildings ahead of a minute's silence to mark the tragedy. Spain's national parliament has also cancelled its normal Wednesday session as a mark of respect.

Barcelona's Liceu opera house will also hold two minutes' silence in homage to two opera singers - Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner - who took the flight after performing at the theatre last weekend.

In the small north-eastern town of Llinars del Valles, parents and children attended a memorial service at the Giola Institute for the 16 German high school students and their two teachers who had been on an exchange programme there for a week before boarding the plane.

Germany's top security official has said there is no evidence at this stage that foul play was involved in the crash.

Interior minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters in Berlin that "according to the latest information there is no hard evidence that the crash was intentionally brought about by third parties".