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Co-Pilot Deliberately Crashed Germanwings Plane, Investigators Say

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We begin this hour with the startling turn in the investigation into the Germanwings flight that went down Tuesday in the French Alps. A French prosecutor said today that the co-pilot deliberately crashed the plane into the mountains. In a moment, what's known about the co-pilot at this point - first, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports on the story emerging from the cockpit recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRICE ROBIN: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin, who is leading the investigation, took journalists on a blow-by-blow account of the last minutes of Germanwings flight 9525. He said while the flight began normally, everything changed when it reached cruising altitude and the pilot briefly left the cockpit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: When he was alone, the co-pilot took the plane off automatic pilot and started its rapid descent, a maneuver, said Robin, that could not be done accidentally. The prosecutor described how the co-pilot refused to let the pilot back in and ignored emergency calls from Marseille flight control and other planes trying to make contact.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Robin said investigators knew he was alive because they hear his steady breathing until the final impact. But the co-pilot never spoke another word, said Robin, not when altitude alarms went off and not when the pilot screamed and pounded on the door. Robin said the 27-year-old German co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately plowed that plane into the side of a mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: All eyes are now on Lubitz. Why did he do it? Who was he, asks this German news report. Lubitz had been with Germanwings since September 2013 and had about 600 hours flying time. Much more will likely be discovered in coming days. Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, called the revelations an airline's worst nightmare. Here he is speaking through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARSTEN SPOHR: (Through interpreter) We are in a state of shock. We are horrified - horrified that something of this nature could have taken place.

BEARDSLEY: Spohr said the crash would undoubtedly lead to changes in the airline industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: French news talk shows are discussing the system of locks on cockpit doors in place since 9/11. A cockpit door cannot be opened if the pilot refuses. There was also talk of whether it should now be mandatory to have two people in the cockpit at all times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: News of the cockpit tapes became public as hundreds of family members of the victims gathered near the site of the crash. Television cameras, kept at a distance, showed them huddled together at a makeshift memorial in a field below the snowcapped peaks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had visited the site just yesterday before returning to Germany, called the crash unimaginable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Merkel said, "I wish I could talk of a tragic accident like I did yesterday. But now," she said, "this is a crime perpetrated against the people on that flight." Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.