SEYNE-LES-ALPES, France – Helicopters surveying the scattered debris of a German jetliner lifted off at daybreak on Wednesday as investigators sought clues in the wreckage and the black box from the plane that lost radio contact, went into a dive and slammed into the Alpine mountainside. All 150 aboard were believed dead.
Victims on the flight from Spain to Germany included two babies, two opera singers, an Australian mother and her adult son vacationing together, and 16 German high school students and their teachers returning from an exchange trip to Spain.
While investigators searched through debris from Flight 9525 on steep and desolate slopes, families across Europe and beyond reeled in shock. French authorities set up a chapel in a gymnasium as a space to mourn.
"The site is a picture of horror. The grief of the families and friends is immeasurable," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after being flown over the crash scene. "We must now stand together. We are united in our great grief."
Pierre-Henry Brandet, spokesman for France's Interior Ministry, says investigators are working to recover information from the black box retrieved from the scene of the crash. Brandet told French network iTele that recovery crews are expected to reach the site where the Germanwings went down sometimes Wednesday morning.
He said no causes had been ruled out in the crash.
The White House and the airline chief said there was no sign that terrorism was involved, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned against speculating on the cause.
The Airbus A320 operated by Germanwings, a budget subsidiary of Lufthansa, was less than an hour from landing in Duesseldorf on a flight from Barcelona when it unexpectedly went into a rapid 8-minute descent on Tuesday. The pilots sent out no distress call and had lost radio contact with their control center, France's aviation authority said.
Germanwings said 144 passengers and six crew members were on board. Authorities said 67 Germans were believed among the victims, including the 16 high school students and two opera singers, as well as many Spaniards, two Australians and one person each from the Netherlands, Turkey and Denmark. In Japan, the government said two Japanese citizens were believed to be on the plane.
It took investigators hours to reach the site, led by mountain guides to the craggy ravine in the southern French Alps, not far from the Italian border and the French Riviera.
Video shot from a helicopter and aired by BFM TV showed rescuers walking in the crevices of a rocky mountainside scattered with plane parts. Photos of the crash site showed white flecks of debris across a mountain and larger airplane body sections with windows. A helicopter crew that landed briefly in the area saw no signs of life, French officials said.
"Everything is pulverized. The largest pieces of debris are the size of a small car. No one can access the site from the ground," Gilbert Sauvan, president of the general council, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, told The Associated Press.
"This is pretty much the worst thing you can imagine," said Bodo Klimpel, mayor of the German town of Haltern, rent with sorrow after losing 16 tenth graders and their two teachers from a local high school.
Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy were to visit the crash site Wednesday.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said one of two black boxes was retrieved from the site and "will be immediately investigated." He did not say whether it was the flight data recorder or the cockpit voice recorder.
The two devices — actually orange boxes designed to survive extreme heat and pressure — should provide investigators with a second-by-second timeline of the plane's flight.
The voice recorder takes audio feeds from four microphones within the cockpit and records all the conversations between the pilots, air traffic controllers as well as any noises heard in the cockpit. The flight data recorder captures 25 hours' worth of information on the position and condition of almost every major part in a plane.
Lufthansa Vice President Heike Birlenbach told reporters in Barcelona that for now "we say it is an accident."
Germanwings is low-cost carrier owned by Lufthansa, Germany's biggest airline, and serves mostly European destinations. Tuesday's crash was its first involving passenger deaths since it began operating in 2002. The Germanwings logo, normally maroon and yellow, was blacked out on its Twitter feed.
Authorities faced a long and difficult search-and-recovery operation because of the area's remoteness. Temperatures early Wednesday hovered just above freezing, and snow coated nearby mountaintops.
French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said the crash site covered several acres, with thousands of pieces of debris, "which leads us to think the impact must have been extremely violent at very high speed."
The last time a passenger jet crashed in France was the 2000 Concorde supersonic jet accident, which left 113 dead.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton, Lori Hinnant, Thomas Adamson and Elaine Ganley in Paris; Claude Paris in Seyne-les-Alpes; David McHugh in Frankfurt; Geir Moulson and David Rising in Berlin; Frank Augstein in Duesseldorf; Al Clendenning in Madrid; Joe Wilson in Barcelona; Kirsten Grieshaber in Haltern, Germany, and AP Airlines writer Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.