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Investigators Lack Answers In French Alps Plane Crash


Investigators are making progress as they try to figure out why a commercial plane went down in the French Alps yesterday. They just don't have any answers yet. All 150 people on board Germanwings Flight 9525 were killed. The weather was calm. There was no distress call. The plane's cockpit voice recorder has now been recovered, but investigators are still looking for the other so-called black box, the flight data recorder. This plane took off from Barcelona yesterday and was headed for the west German city of Duesseldorf. And that's where we join NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. Soraya, good morning.


GREENE: So what do we know at this point?

NELSON: Well, the French interior minister said in a radio interview that a terrorist attack is not the most likely scenario. So even as of late yesterday, it was becoming clear that investigators are turning their attention to what might have happened with the plane itself or the flying of it. But it's really complicated for them because this terrain is in a very remote, mountainous region, you know, in the French Alps. And the scale of the debris field is just mind-boggling. The TV footage that you can see from a helicopter that was taken of the crash site shows a plane that's been pulverized - it looks like it just slammed into the mountain - with parts no larger than a car. And as you mentioned, one of the two black boxes was recovered. But apparently, it was damaged in this high-speed crash.

GREENE: Well, Soraya, you say they're focusing some of their attention on the plane itself. I mean, what do we know about the plane - anything so far that would suggest there might have been something wrong with it?

NELSON: Well, it was more than two decades old. It had passed recent routine inspections. But it was grounded for much of Monday morning because of a problem with the nose landing gear door. An airline spokesman says that was resolved, and the plane flew several flights before the crash. But there are also some questions that are emerging about a Lufthansa Airbus flight last November. It was a similar model. It was flying from Spain to Munich. Fifteen minutes into it, the autopilot unexpectedly lowered the nose. And frozen sensors were to blame for that. But those parts were replaced, including in the Germanwings planes.

GREENE: This Germanwings airline, I mean, it's a budget subsidiary of Lufthansa. And we're hearing now that crews on Germanwings are now refusing to fly in the wake of this crash yesterday. Why would that be?

NELSON: An airline spokesman said it was for personal reasons. He really wouldn't go into it. The pilots union for Lufthansa was talking about it being more of an emotional thing because Germany's just not used to plane crashes. It's just something that hasn't really happened here. Lufthansa, meanwhile, says it will pick up the slack of any canceled flights. And the pilot union, which was on strike for most of last week over retirement disputes, says it's going to postpone any future strikes for the time being.

GREENE: Soraya, of course, this is a moment when the families of people who were on that plane are grieving. Some are making their way as close to the crash site as they can get. Some of the victims, 16 German students and two teachers returning from a school exchange trip to Spain, and it sounds like the town that they are from, I mean, just struggling to deal with a really devastating loss.

NELSON: Yes, absolutely. The mayor of Haltern am See, which is a small town of 38,000 on the edge of Germany's Rust Belt, says that the people are just absolutely devastated there. They don't know how to cope. Until yesterday, it wasn't really known for much except for producing two major German soccer stars. And, you know, today they're sort of coping with the loss of 18 people. The mayor says that a memorial service last night in the town, in which residents lit candles and talked with one another, is helping with the healing as is a memorial service that's being held at the Joseph-Konig High School by students and teachers. This is also a place where they will be talking to grief counselors and just trying to figure out how to move on.

GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's in Duesseldorf, Germany. That was the destination for the Germanwings plane that went down in the French Alps yesterday. Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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