Search efforts at the crash site of a German jetliner in the French Alps were suspended late Tuesday, as night fell over mountainous terrain where officials say the lives of all 150 passengers and crew were lost earlier in the day.
About a dozen specially trained mountain police were guarding the site in southeastern France, as rescue teams prepared to begin retrieving bodies at daybreak Wednesday.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said a helicopter landed near where the Germanwings aircraft crashed in southeastern France, but rescue workers found no survivors. A local official in the ski resort region said the plane had disintegrated, with the largest debris the size of a small car.
There was no immediate explanation for the accident. But French officials said one of the plane's black boxes that records key flight information has been recovered from the wreckage and could provide clues.
In Washington, the White House said there was no indication that the crash was linked to terrorism.
Map showing locations of Dusseldorf, Barcelona, and Barcelonnette, with a satellite inset of the crash site
Germanwings confirmed its flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona to Duesseldorf went down with 144 passengers and six crew on board.
By Wednesday evening, France Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said one of the plane's black box recorders had been found and would be examined immediately.
Those aboard plane
The airline believed there were 67 Germans on the flight. Spain's deputy prime minister said 45 passengers had Spanish names. One Belgian was aboard.
Also among the crash victims were 16 children and two teachers from the Joseph-Koenig-Gymnasium high school in the town of Haltern am See in northwest Germany, a spokeswoman said.
Investigators described a scene of devastation where the airliner crashed.
“We saw an aircraft that had literally been ripped apart, the bodies are in a state of destruction, there is not one intact piece of wing or fuselage,” Bruce Robin, prosecutor for the city of Marseille, told Reuters in Seyne-les-Alpes after flying over the crash zone in a helicopter.
French police at the crash site said it would take days to recover the bodies due to difficult terrain, snow and incoming storms. Police said search teams would stay overnight at altitude.
“We are still searching. It's unlikely any bodies will be airlifted until Wednesday,” regional police chief David Galtier told Reuters.
Germanwings said the plane started descending one minute after reaching its cruising height of 11,500 meters and continued losing altitude for eight minutes.
“The aircraft's contact with French radar, French air traffic controllers, ended at 10:53 a.m. at an altitude of about 6,000 feet. The plane then crashed,” Germanwings' Managing Director Thomas Winkelmann told a news conference.
Experts said that while the Airbus had descended rapidly, its rate of descent did not suggest it had simply fallen out of the sky.
French Civil Aviation spokesman Eric Heraud said the plane lost radio contact at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, but “never declared a distress alert itself.” He said it was the combination of loss of radio contract with air traffic control and the plane's descent that prompted the control service to declare a distress.
Winkelmann said French air traffic controllers lost contact with the flight at an altitude of about 1,800 meters.
Capt. Benoit Zeisser of the Digne-le-Bains police said there were some clouds in the region at the time of the crash, but the cloud ceiling was not low and there did not appear to be turbulence.
In addition, the safest part of a flight is when the plane is at cruising elevation. Just 10 percent of fatal accidents occur at that point, according to a safety analysis by Boeing. In contrast, takeoff and the initial climb accounts for 14 percent of crashes and final approach and landing accounts for 47 percent.
'Tragedy on our soil'
French President Francois Hollande called the crash "a tragedy on our soil."
Hollande offered condolences to the families of the victims, and said he had established a crisis center to work with the Spanish and German governments, and the victims’ families.
He also called German Chancellor Angela Merkel to express his condolences.
Merkel's spokesman said she was "deeply shocked" by the accident and canceled all of her other appointments for the day. Merkel said she would visit the crash site Wednesday.
"I will travel there tomorrow to get my own impression and to speak with local officials," she told reporters.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in a Twitter message: "Shocked by the air accident in the Alps. A tragedy. We are cooperating with the French and German authorities in the investigation."
Spanish King Felipe was on a state visit to Paris at the time of the crash, but abruptly ended his trip and returned home.
U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the crash. In a statement, Meehan said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families and loved ones.”
She added, “There is no indication of a nexus to terrorism at this time.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki offered condolences to the families of the 150 people aboard the Germanwings flight.
“We are reviewing whether any U.S. citizens were aboard the flight. The United States stands ready to offer assistance and support to the governments of France, Germany and Spain as they investigate this tragedy,” Psaki's statement said.
View of crash site
In Paris, Prime Minister Valls told parliament: “A helicopter managed to land (by the crash site) and has confirmed that, unfortunately, there were no survivors.”
It was the first crash of a large passenger jet on French soil since the Concorde disaster just outside Paris nearly 15 years ago.
The A320 is a workhorse of worldwide aviation fleets. They are the world's most used passenger jets and have a good, though not unblemished, safety record.
The aircraft came down in an alpine region known for skiing, hiking and rafting, but which is hard for rescue services to reach.
The site was reported to be in a steep area of deep snow at 2,000 meters altitude, with no road nearby -- a two-and-a-half-hour hike from the nearest village, where hundreds of rescue workers were converging.
The search and rescue effort based itself in a gymnasium in the village of Seyne-les-Alpes, which has a small private aerodrome nearby.
Transport Minister Alain Vidalies told local media: “This is a zone covered in snow, inaccessible to vehicles, but which helicopters will be able to fly over.”
But as helicopters and emergency vehicles assembled, the weather was reported to be deteriorating.
“There will be a lot of cloud cover this afternoon, with local storms, snow above 1,800 meters and relatively low clouds. That will not help the helicopters in their work,” an official from the local weather center told Reuters.
'Dark day for Lufthansa'
Lufthansa Chief Executive Carsten Spohr, who planned to go to the crash site, spoke of a “dark day for Lufthansa.”
“My deepest sympathy goes to the families and friends of our passengers and crew,” Lufthansa said on Twitter, citing Spohr.
The airliner crashed about 100 kilometers (65 miles) north of the French Riviera city of Nice. French and German accident investigators were heading for the crash site in Meolans-Revel, a remote and sparsely inhabited commune, not far from the Italian border.
Germanwings is a budget airline subsidiary of the German-based airline Lufthansa. The A320 aircraft that crashed was 24 years old and was at the upper end of its normal use as a commercial airliner. It had undergone a mechanical inspection on Monday.
Graham Braithwaite, head of the air accident investigation center at Britain’s Cranfield University, said the Airbus 320 has been an extremely reliable aircraft, and has up-to-date and redundant control systems designed to prevent just such a crash.
Experts from the European aircraft maker will join the French, Spanish and German teams to investigate.
Pamela Dockins and Luis Ramirez contributed to this report from Washington. Al Pessin contributed to this report from London. Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.