Marseille: An Airbus operated by Lufthansa’s Germanwings budget airline crashed in a remote snowy area of the French Alps on Tuesday, killing all 150 on board including 16 schoolchildren and two babies.

Flight 4U 9525 was travelling from Barcelona in Spain to Dusseldorf in Germany with 144 passengers and six crew. The accident happened in a snow-clad alpine area that is hard for rescue services to reach.

The first emergency services workers to arrive found no survivors, and fragments of the plane “the size of a car”.

“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 said it would take days to recover the bodies due to difficult terrain.

“It is going to take days to recover the victims, then the debris,” senior police officer Jean-Paul Bloy told Reuters.

French president Francois Hollande said it was unlikely there were any survivors. It is the first air disaster in France since the Concorde tragedy in 2000.

In Paris, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told parliament: “A helicopter managed to land (by the crash site) and has confirmed that unfortunately there were no survivors.”

Thomas Winkelmann,managing director of Germanwings, speaks during a news conference in Cologne, Germany, on Tuesday.

A spokesman for France’s DGAC aviation authority said the airliner crashed near the town of Barcelonnette about 100 kilometres north of the French Riviera city of Nice.

Details of the flight’s short journey are now beginning to emerge, though no cause has yet been identified.

Half an hour into the flight, at around 9.30am GMT, the 24-year-old plane rapidly lost altitude, according to flight tracking data online.

Students light candles at the Joseph-Koenig Gymnasium in Haltern, Germany. Sixteen school children and 2 teachers from Haltern are among the plane crash victims.

There were no confirmed reports of any emergency communication from the plane before the crash.

Within a few minutes it had plummeted from its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, into an Alps valley near a ski resort.

In a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, a Germanwings spokesman said the cause of the crash was a mystery.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the media in Berlin following the plane crash on Tuesday.

“The aircraft’s contact with French radar, French air traffic controllers ended at 10.53 am at an altitude of about 6,000 feet (1.8 kilometres). The plane then crashed,” Lufthansa unit Germanwings’ Managing Director Thomas Winkelmann told journalists.

The Airbus 320 had been in continuous operation with Lufthansa and then Germanwings since 1991.

It had a routine check in Dusseldorf the day before the crash, and a regular extensive inspection in mid-2013. Nothing irregular had been identified – though the airlines will now review their inspection logbooks.

The captain had more than 10 years experience, including 6000 flight-hours on Airbus models.

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.

Winkelmann also said that routine maintenance of the aircraft was performed by Lufthansa Technik on Monday.

Germanwings said they had “contradictory information” on whether a distress call had been issued, and it was “impossible to say” at the moment why the plane began descending.

The airline believed there were 67 Germans on the flight. Spain’s deputy prime minister said 45 passengers had Spanish names.

Among the 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.

French President Francois Hollande said he could not be sure if there were French passengers on board the flight, describing the crash as a “terrible event”.

“We are in mourning,” Mr Hollande said.

In a press conference German chancellor Angela Merkel said “We are shocked by the extent of the accident which has brought disaster to so many people.”

“We are going through hard hours.”

Her thoughts and sympathies went to all those affected, families and friends of the victims.

She had talked to the president of France and Spanish prime minister, who were “doing their utmost to investigate the cause of the accident,” Ms Merkel said.

The German foreign and transport ministers were on their way to the crash area.

“This is a time and an hour of great sorrow, of great grief,” she said. “We should be thinking about the people who have lost relatives and friends.”

He promised that all efforts would be made to discover the cause of the accident and to recover the victims.

Le Parisien reported an eyewitness from the area who “heard a big thud and then I saw a column of smoke”.

A woman from the town of Vernet, near the crash scene, said she heard a “big thud”, a little like the noise of dynamite sometimes used to trigger avalanches.

“Around noon I began to see a column of smoke rise into the air.”

A resident of the Pra Loup ski resort told the British Broadcasting Corporation her husband had seen a plane flying low over the mountains and she had heard a sound like a plane “going down very fast”. She said she did not hear any explosion.

A witness who was skiing near the crash site told a French television channel he “heard an enormous noise” around the time of the disaster.

A French police helicopter dispatched to the site of the crash reported spotting debris in a mountain range known as “Les Trois Eveches,” which reaches 1400 metres in altitude.

The French government said “major rescue efforts” had been mobilised, but accessing the remote region would present severe challenges.

High winds and snow are forecast for the area over the next two days, adding to the challenge for rescue workers and crash investigators.

Also, this year has seen a particularly dangerous avalanche season in the Alps.

It is the first air disaster over French soil since the Concorde tragedy in 2000 in which 113 died.

In 2009 Air France flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 on board.

The search and rescue effort based itself in a gymnasium in the village of Seyne-les-Alpes, which has a small private aerodrome nearby.

The German foreign and transport ministers were on their way to the crash area.

“This is a time and an hour of great sorrow, of great grief,” she said. “We should be thinking about the people who have lost relatives and friends.”

Spanish King Felipe VI cut short his state visit to France on news of the tragedy.

It was the first crash of a large passenger jet on French soil since the Concorde disaster just outside Paris in July 2000.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald