YNE-LES-ALPES, France — Two Americans were believed to be on board theGermanwings plane that slammed into a remote Alpine mountainside, the airline said Wednesday, as investigators continued searching for clues on what caused the crash.
French officials said a black box recovered from the ill-fated plane — Flight 4U9525's cockpit voice recorder — was damaged but could still shed light on what prompted the Airbus A320 to descend rapidly and crash into the Alps, killing all 150 people aboard. Some Germanwings crew members have refused to fly following the unexplained accident.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve acknowledged that all possible explanations for the crash are being considered, but told RTL radio that terrorist action is not the most likely theory.
Officials confirmed to NBC News that the French Air Force had scrambled a Mirage fighter jet to the area when the Germanwings flight lost radar contact on Tuesday, but the jet arrived too late and didn't spot the wreckage.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived for a visit to the crash site, where recovery efforts have been underway since daybreak over the scattered debris field.
"The scene is not like a normal crash," said rescue helicopter co-ordinator Xavier Roy. "We normally find big pieces; there are lots of little pieces. There are no wings; no cockpit. Nothing.
"I have never seen anything like it before. The searchers have to be dropped into the crash site by winch from helicopters. No bodies have been brought up yet."
The aircraft was traveling at 430 mph when it crashed and its impact was "very hard," according to Jean-Paul Troadec, former head of France's Bureau of Investigation for Aviation.
His account was echoed by Cazeneuve's spokesman, Pierre-Henry Brandet, who told NBC News that those who had flown over the site "can't even identify anything that looks like a plane."
"We will take all the time necessary" to remove the victims, he added.
Grieving families were also expected to arrive at the scene and Lufthansa — the owner of Germanwings — said it would help transport relatives to the site.
The airline said it believed there were two Americans, 72 Germans and at least 35 Spaniards aboard the flight but that the information was constantly changing.
"We have not been able to contact all of the relatives yet," Germanwings Managing Director Thomas Winkelman told reporters, saying the information about nationalities was correct as of 11 a.m. (6 a.m. ET).
There were two passengers each from Australia, Argentina, Iran and Venezuela and one each from the U.K., Netherlands: Colombia. Mexico, Japan, Denmark and Israel, Winkelman added. U.S. officials were not immediately available for comment.
The victims included two babies, two opera singers, an Australian mother and her adult son vacationing together, and 16 German high schoolers returning with their teachers from an exchange trip to Spain.
In Seyne-les-Alpes, locals had offered to host bereaved families because of a shortage of rooms to rent, said the town's mayor, Francis Hermitte.
Claude Buzon, 67, who lives in a village near the crash site, said the doomed plane made a "low sound" unlike the noise normally made by passing jets. "Afterwards I heard no explosion, no impact, nothing," he said.
"It is inexplicable this could happen to a plane free of technical problems and with an experienced, Lufthansa-trained pilot," Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr told reporters in Frankfurt.
In Spain, flags flew at half-staff on government buildings and a minute of silence was held in government offices across the country. Parliament canceled its normal Wednesday session.
Germanwings workers at the company's Cologne headquarters and at several airports observed a one-minute silence to mark the tragedy at 10:53 a.m. local time, the moment the airline says the plane crashed.
Lufthansa — whose employees worldwide also observed a moment of silence — said the flight number 4U9525 had been retired.
The cockpit voice recorder tracks all conversations between the pilots as well as any noises in the cockpit. The flight data recorder, which has not yet been recovered, captures 25 hours' worth of information on the position and condition of almost every major part in a plane.
— NBC News' Nancy Ing and Carol Marquis and The Associated Press contributed to this report
Alastair Jamieson is a London-based reporter, editor and homepage producer for NBC News. He joined NBCNews.com... Expand Bio
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Germanwings Crash: Investigators Release Photos of Battered 'Black Box'
French investigators on Wednesday released the first photos of the battered cockpit voice recorder — one of the so-called 'black boxes' — from the German jetliner that went down in the Alps.
Investigators will examine the recorder for any conversations in the cockpit and alarms that might have sounded before the jetliner, Germanwings Flight 9525, crashed on Tuesday in remote southern France, killing 150 people.
The plane did not issue a distress call as it made an unexplained descent from 38,000 feet over eight minutes.
The other black box, the flight data recorder, has yet to be recovered.
Germanwings Crash Victims: Students, Singers Were on Doomed Airbus
There were 144 passengers and six flight crew aboard Germanwings Flight 4U9525, which crashed into the French Alps on Tuesday. Here is a look at some of the lives lost in the tragedy. The victims hailed from at least 13 countries — and two were believed to be American.
Businessman Eyal Baum, 39, hailed from Hod Hasharon, Israel, but lived in Germany.
"Eyal wanted to come back to Israel sooner than later but we never thought it would be this way," his father Robert Baum told Israeli news site Ynet. "The moment I heard about the crash I checked and found out there were three flights but he was on this terrible flight and ever since my world stopped."
Australian nurse Carol Friday, 68, was traveling with her son Greig, 29, an engineer who had planned to move to France to teach English.
The pair were "extraordinary and exceptional people," their family said Wednesday in a statement issued through Australia's foreign ministry. "Our family is in deep disbelief and crippled with sadness."
"They will forever be with us in our hearts, memories and dreams," the statement added.
Three generations of one Spanish family — a schoolgirl, her mother and grandmother — died in crash, The Associated Press reported. The girl was a student at Santa Isabel school in Sant Cugat, near Barcelona — a school for children between the ages of 10 and 11. Town officials did not provide the family's names, according to the AP.
"The students are very affected. The teachers are trying to help them any way they can," a woman who answered the phone at the school told the AP.
Briton Paul Andrew Bramley, 28, was a student of hospitality and hotel management in Switzerland on his way home to visit his family after a break in Barcelona, the U.K.'s foreign office said in a statement.
"Paul was a kind, caring and loving son," his mother Carol Bramley said in the statement. "He was the best son, he was my world."
Argentinian couple Gabriela Maumus and Gabriel Greco, both 28, were on vacation in Europe, according to Clarin newspaper.
Maumus, a "passionate" musician, was due to return home by Sunday for a gig with her band APZOO, the newspaper reported. Her father, a volunteer fireman in the city of General Pacheco, had been informed of the news.
"The family is destroyed," the newspaper quoted a fire department source as saying.
Sixteen German high school students from the town of Haltern were on the plane with their teachers, returning from an exchange trip to Spain.
Leonie Kustermeier's cousin, 16-year-old Rabea Scheidler, was one of them.
"I'm really shocked and I can't believe it right now," she told NBC News outside of a growing memorial at the Joseph-Konig high school in Haltern. "I still think she will come to school tomorrow."
German opera singers Oleg Bryjak and Maria Radner had just performed in a production of Wagner's Siegfried at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.
Tanja Brill, spokeswoman for Dusseldorf's opera house, told NBC News that the ensemble was "absolutely depressed" at the death of Oleg Bryjak, who had been with the organization for 20 years.
"Our sincere condolences to family and friends of all victims," Barcelona's Gran Teatre said in a statement.
Marina Bandres, a native of the small Spanish town of Jaca, and her baby boy also were on the plane, Jaca Mayor Victor Barrio told the AP. Bandres had been attending a funeral in Jaca for a relative, Barrio said.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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