A Germanwings passenger jet carrying at least 150 people crashed Tuesday in a snowy, remote section of the French Alps, sounding like an avalanche as it scattered pulverized debris across the area. All aboard were feared dead, French officials said.
There was no obvious reason why the Germanwings A320 plane should have crashed in the middle of its flight from Barcelona to Duesseldorf and German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged people not to speculate on the cause. In Washington, the White House said American officials were in contact with French, Spanish and German counterparts.
"There is no indication of a nexus to terrorism at this time," said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
The crash left officials and families across Europe in shock. Sobbing, grieving families at both Barcelona and Duesseldorf airports were led away by airport workers and crisis counsellors.
"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," Merkel told reporters at a briefing in Berlin. "All that will be investigated thoroughly."
The plane left Barcelona at 9:55 a.m. Germanwings official Thomas Winkelmann said it began descending again shortly after it reached its cruising height of 38,000 feet following takeoff from Barcelona Airport. The descent lasted eight minutes, he told reporters in Cologne. Radar and air traffic control contact with the plane broke off at 10:53 a.m. at an altitude of about 6,000 feet.
The plane crashed in a mountainous zone in the French Alps at an altitude of about 2,000 metres (6,550 feet), said Pierre-Henry Brandet, the French Interior Ministry spokesman.
Winkelmann said the pilot had more than 10 years' experience working for Germanwings and its parent airline Lufthansa. Airbus said the A320 was delivered to Lufthansa in 1991.
Germanwings said Flight 9525 carried 144 passengers, including two babies, and 6 crew members. Officials believe there were 67 German nationals on board.
The crash site was at Meolans-Revels, near the popular ski resort of Pra Loup, according to Eric Ciotti, the head of the regional council in southeast France. The site is 700 kilometres (430 miles) south-southeast of Paris. But with mountains all around and few clear trails into the area, access to the crash site was expected to take time.
Brandet told BFM television he expected "an extremely long and extremely difficult" search-and-rescue operation because of the area's remoteness. The weather in the area deteriorated Tuesday afternoon, hours after the crash, with a chilly rain falling.
"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, the president of the Pra Loup tourism office, told The Associated Press.
Germanwings is a lower-cost unit of Lufthansa, Germany's biggest airline, and serves mostly European destinations. It has been operating since 2002, part of traditional national carriers' response to competition from European budget carriers.
Family members arriving at Duesseldorf airport were taken from the main terminal to a nearby building, which airport employees partially covered with sheets for privacy. At Barcelona airport, police escorted several crying women to a secure part of the airport. One woman held a jacket over the head of another woman, who was sobbing.
The Germanwings logo, normally maroon and yellow, was blacked out on its Twitter feed.
The owner of a campground near the crash site, Pierre Polizzi, said he heard the plane making curious noises shortly before it crashed.
"At 11.30, I heard a series of loud noises in the air. There are often fighter jets flying over, so I thought it sounded just like that. I looked outside, but I couldn't see any fighter planes," he told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "The noise I heard was long -- like 8 seconds -- as if the plane was going more slowly than a military plane. There was another long noise after about 30 seconds."
Polizzi said the plane crashed about 5-to-8 kilometres (3-to-11 miles) from his place, which is closed for the season.
"It's going to be very difficult to get there. The mountain is snowy and very hostile," he said.
The municipal sports hall of Seyne-les-Alpes, 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the Val d'Allos ski resort, was being set up to take bodies from the crash, according to Sandrine Julien of the town hall.
"The plane is disintegrated," Gilbert Sauvan of the local council told the Les Echos newspaper. "The largest debris is the size of a car."
Capt. Benoit Zeisser of the nearby Digne-le-Bains police said there were some clouds in the morning but the cloud ceiling was not low.
In addition, the safest part of a flight is when the plane is at cruising elevation. Just 10 per cent of fatal accidents occur at that point, according to a safety analysis by Boeing.
In contrast, takeoff and the initial climb accounts for 14 per cent of crashes and final approach and landing accounts for 47 per cent.
German media reported that 16 high school students and two teachers from Haltern in western Germany were among the victims, but police and the school would not immediately confirm the report.
In a live briefing Tuesday in Paris, French President Francois Hollande called the crash "a tragedy on our soil."
The last time a passenger jet crashed in France was the 2000 Concorde accident, which left 113 dead -- 109 in the plane and four on the ground.
Merkel spoke with both Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy about the crash, immediately cancelling all other appointments.
Merkel told reporters she would travel to the crash site region on Wednesday, and that Germany's foreign and transport ministers were already en route. She said her thoughts were "with those people who so suddenly lost their lives, among them many compatriots."
"The crash of the German plane with more than 140 people on board is a shock that plunges us in Germany, the French and the Spanish into deep sorrow," Merkel said.
The aircraft was delivered to Lufthansa in 1991, had approximately 58,300 flight hours in some 46,700 flights, Airbus said. Airbus technical advisers were being sent to assist the French Accident Investigation bureau.
The A320 plane is a workhorse of modern aviation. Similar to the Boeing 737, the single-aisle, twin-engine jet is used to connect cities between one and five hours apart. Worldwide, 3,606 A320s are in operation, according to Airbus.
The A320 is certified to fly up to 39,000 feet but it can begin to experience problems as low as 37,000 feet, depending on temperature and weight, including fuel, cargo and passengers.
The A320 family also has a good safety record, with just 0.14 fatal accidents per million takeoffs, according to a Boeing safety analysis.
Spain's king and queen, in Paris on Tuesday, cancelled their previously planned state visit and offered their condolences to all who lost a loved one in the crash.