Prosecutor: Passengers shrieked as jet crashed into Alps
The co-pilot of the Germanwings flight that crashed in the French Alps deliberately worked to destroy the plane while passengers shrieked in terror and the pilot pounded on the cockpit door, a French prosecutor said at a news conference Thursday in Marseille.
“This was voluntary, this was deliberate,” Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin said. “He refused to open the cabin door in order to let the pilot back in. I repeat. He refused to let the pilot back in. He is the one who pressed the button that allowed the plane to begin descending and lose altitude.”
The information was obtained from the cockpit voice recorder of doomed Flight 9525, which suddenly began an eight-minute descent before smashing into a rugged ravine in the French Alps on Tuesday. The data recorder for the flight from Barcelona bound for Düsseldorf, Germany, has not yet been found.
Robin said the co-pilot, identified as German national Andreas Lubitz, 27, was not on a terror watch list. A federal law enforcement official told USA TODAY the FBI has been running the flight manifests through its databases but so far has found no connection to terrorism.
Lubitz said nothing during the descent, but could be heard breathing until the crash, Robin said.
“The co-pilot is the only one in the cockpit,’ Robin said. “While he is alone he somehow manipulated the buttons on the flight monitoring system. He was alone at the helm of this Airbus.”
Robin stressed the actions were deliberate. He said passengers could be heard screaming in fear.
“We start hearing banging, someone actually trying to break the door down,” Robin said. “That’s why the alarms were let off — because these were protocols that were put in place in case of any terror attack.”
Robin said the plane apparently glided until it crashed into the ravine, a sound heard on the voice recorder.
“Again, no distress signal, zero, no ‘help me’ or SOS,” he said. “Nothing of this sort was received by air-traffic control.”
Robin said the voice recorder indicated dialogue between the pilot and co-pilot was normal. Robin said informed the families of the developments and that they were in shock.
German, French and Spanish authorities are investigating the crash. The FBI issued a statement saying it was offering to help French officials leading the investigation.
German carrier Lufthansa, which owns the low-cost airline, offered special flights from Barcelona and Düsseldorf to Marseille, so that those close to the victims can be near the scene of the search and recovery efforts in the French Alps.
“We are shaken by the upsetting statements of the French authorities. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families and friends of the victims,” Lufthansa tweeted.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said he was left “speechless” by Robin’s horrifying description of events, but said evidence thus far supports them.
“This action on the altitude controls can only be deliberate,” Spohr said. “The most plausible interpretation is that the co-pilot, through a voluntary act, refused to open the cabin door to let the captain in. He pushed the button to trigger the aircraft to lose altitude.
“He operated this button for a reason we don’t know yet, but it appears that the reason was to destroy this plane.”
U.S. cockpit regulations don’t allow a pilot to be left alone in a cockpit. The Air Line Pilots Association issued a statement saying U.S. airline procedures are “designed to ensure that there is never a situation where a pilot is left alone in the cockpit.”
Lufthansa said Lubitz joined Germanwings in September 2013, directly after training, and had flown 630 hours. Spohr said the co-pilot began training in Bremen, Germany, in 2008 and later trained in Arizona.
Spohr said there was a brief interruption in training in 2009 but that he had completed qualifications for the job. German media outlets quoted classmates as saying Lubitz interrupted his training due to “burnout” and “depression.”
Lubitz was included in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s database of certified pilots.
“He passed all medical tests, he passed all aviation tests, he passed all checks,” Spohr said. “He was 100% able to fly without any limitations, without any reservations. His accomplishments were excellent. Nothing was noticed that wasn’t proper.”
Spohr said there were no indications that the co-pilot was dealing with a terrorist incident in the cockpit.
“We are speechless at Lufthansa and Germanwings,” Spohr said. “We are shocked.”
Officials have not identified the pilot, but multiple media outlets have identified him as Patrick Sonderheimer. He had more than 6,000 hours of flying time and had been Germanwings pilot since May 2014, having previously flown for Lufthansa and Condor. Robin said Sonderheimer’s family is in France and would be interviewed by investigators.