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Plane's Steep Decline Confounds Crash Investigators

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now the latest on that deadly plane crash in the French Alps yesterday. Investigators are still trying to understand how a plane making a routine flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf suddenly and rapidly descended from its cruising altitude and plunged into the mountains. The crash of this German-operated Airbus with 150 people on board has shaken people in three countries - Spain, France, Germany and also elsewhere in Europe, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Footage of the crash filmed from a helicopter and shown on French television showed small pieces of white debris strewn across a steep, rocky mountainside. Also visible were the first investigators arriving at the scene on foot, trying to make their way into a ravine through massive crevices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTIAN VIGNE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The helicopter pilot, Christian Vigne, said they had hoped to find survivors at the mile-high crash site, but that's totally impossible, he says. The plane is pulverized. People on the ground heard explosions at the time of the crash. Sebastian Giroud was one of the few eyewitnesses. He was working in his yard.

SEBASTIAN GIROUD: (Through interpreter) I looked up and saw a commercial plane coming down into the mountain range. It was strange. You never see planes like that here. I knew immediately something was wrong and it was going to crash.

BEARDSLEY: Grief-stricken families gathered in Germany and Spain. In France, authorities set up a base camp for the investigation and recovery of remains, with a fleet of helicopters and hundreds of firefighters, police and military with the skills to work in the rugged, mountainous landscape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNARD CAZENEUVE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Late Tuesday, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that one of the plane's two black boxes, the one that records cockpit conversations, was found. Cazeneuve said it had been damaged, but investigators were working to repair it so they could read it. He said terrorism was not a likely scenario for the crash. Investigators are at a loss to explain why flight 2925 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, operated by Lufthansa's low-cost subsidiary Germanwings, went into a sudden and rapid descent after it had reached its cruising altitude. The plane dived downward at a rate of about half-a-mile a minute, three times the speed of a regular descent, until it slammed into the mountainside. Former pilot and aeronautics expert Jean Serrat says what's most baffling is the plane kept to its original course.

JEAN SERRAT: (Through interpreter) The big mystery is why the pilots descended for eight full minutes without coming out of their trajectory. The first thing you learn as a pilot is if you're going to descend rapidly, you veer widely left or right, but you always quit your regular flight path.

BEARDSLEY: Another troubling question, said Serrat, is why the plane didn't emit a distress signal. Serrat said that would be understandable if there was complete chaos on board, but the plane appeared to be in a fast but controlled dissent for eight full minutes. He said they should of had time to do it. The leaders of France, Spain and Germany will visit the Alpine crash site today, ahead of the expected arrival of dozens of bereaved families. But as yet, there are no answers for them as to why the plane went down. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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