PARIS (KDKA/AP) – Passengers with moments to live screamed in terror and the pilot frantically pounded on the locked cockpit door as a 27-year-old German co-pilot deliberately and wordlessly smashed an Airbus carrying 150 people into an Alpine mountainside.
The account Thursday of the final moments of Germanwings Flight 9525 prompted some airlines to immediately impose stricter cockpit rules - and raised haunting questions about the motive of the co-pilot, whose breathing never wavered as he destroyed the plane and the lives of those aboard.
"We have no idea of the reason," Marseille Prosecutor Brice Robin said, revealing the chilling conclusions investigators reached after reconstructing the final minutes of the flight from the plane's black box voice recorder. Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz's intention was "to destroy this plane."
French, German and U.S. officials said there was no indication of terrorism. The prosecutor did not elaborate on why investigators do not suspect a political motive; instead they're focusing on the co-pilot's "personal, family and professional environment" to try to determine why he did it.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose nation lost 75 people on the flight, said the conclusions brought the tragedy to a "new, simply incomprehensible dimension." Devastated families of victims visited the crash scene Thursday, looking across a windy mountain meadow toward where their loved ones died.
The Airbus A320 was flying from Barcelona to Duesseldorf on Tuesday when it lost radio contact with air traffic controllers and began plunging from its cruising altitude. Eight minutes later, it slammed into the mountainside.
An analysis of transponder data by Flightradar24, a flight tracking service, showed that the autopilot was re-set to take the plane from 38,000 to 100 feet.
The prosecutor laid out in horrifying detail the final sounds heard in the cockpit extracted from the mangled voice recorder.
Lubitz, courteous in the first part of the trip, became "curt" when the captain began the mid-flight briefing on the planned landing, Robin said.
The pilot, who has not been identified, left the cockpit for an apparent bathroom break, and Lubitz took control of the jet.
He suddenly started a manual descent, and the pilot started knocking on the door.
There was no response. "It was absolute silence in the cockpit," the prosecutor said - except for the steady breathing he said indicated Lubitz was not panicked, and acted in a calm, deliberate manner.
The A320 is designed with safeguards to allow emergency entry into the cockpit if a pilot inside is unresponsive. But the override code known to the crew does not go into effect if the person inside the cockpit specifically denies entry.
Instrument alarms went off, but no distress call ever went out from the cockpit, and the control tower's pleas for a response went unanswered.
Just before the plane hit the mountain, passengers' cries of terror could be heard.
"The victims realized just at the last moment," Robin said. "We can hear them screaming."
Their families "are having a hard time believing it," he said, after briefing some of them in Marseille.
Many victims' relatives visited an Alpine clearing Thursday where French authorities set up a viewing tent for family members to look toward the site of the crash, so steep and treacherous that it can only be reached by a long journey on foot or rappelling from a helicopter.
Two Americans presumed to have died in the plane crash include a U.S. government contractor and her daughter who had ties to Pittsburgh. The mother was identified as Yvonne Selke of Nokesville, Virginia, a longtime and highly regarded employee of Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. in Washington, and her grown daughter, Emily Selke.
Emily possessed it all -- beauty, intelligence and a passion for the arts. But it was all taken away in an instant when the rogue co-pilot apparently scuttled the Germanwings airbus in The Alps, killing her and everyone else onboard.
"What a loss for a young life that had so much promise, but what I can tell you is that what she did will just live on here on the North Side," said Nikki Heckman, a local restaurant owner.
Emily was from Virginia and went to Drexel University in Philadelphia. But she made her mark here in Pittsburgh as a founding staff member of the Fringe Festival, a now annual event that features performance artists at North Side bars and restaurants like the Allegheny Tavern and Bistro To Go on East Ohio Street.
Heckman described Selke as kind, insightful and dedicated to the power of the arts to transform neighborhoods and cities.
"Amazing lady, very intelligent, but just outspoken about her values and what she believed in. She didn't just talk about it, she acted. She put her words into practice and principles," said Heckman.
Festival organizers were too distraught to appear on camera, but revealed that just prior to boarding the plane, Selke had been the only American invited to attend the European festival association's training camp for future festival managers in Barcelona, Spain.
Festival organizer Dan Stiker issued this statement:
"We at the Pittsburgh Fringe are devastated to learn that Emily Selke was a victim of the air disaster in Europe this week. She was a founding staff member and a crucial part of the new Pittsburgh Fringe Destival. She was instantly likeable, passionate about the arts, hardworking, and a joy to be around. We cannot replace her. We will never forget her."
And though she wasn't from Pittsburgh and was here only a short time, Selke made an impact here and made an impression on those who knew her that will long endure.
Lubitz's family was in France but was being kept separate from the other families, Robin said. German investigators searched his apartment and his parents' home in Montabaur, Germany, where the curtains were drawn.
The prosecutor's account prompted quick moves toward stricter cockpit rules - and calls for more.
Peter Gall flew for US Airways for 18 years and finds it hard to accept that a fellow pilot would intentionally scuttle a plane with 150 people on board.
"The most chilling thing I've ever heard of as far as airlines and airline safety. It's the one thing that none of us ever think of or ever imagine actually happening," said Gall, a professor of aerospace at West Virginia University.
Gall, of Fox Chapel, says before he was hired by US Airways he had to undergo a battery of psychological tests to ensure he was mentally and emotionally sound. He says he believes that will now become standard throughout the world.
"Looking at what may have happened here; I think things are going to change and psychological evaluation, mental stability, all that is going to be addressed," Gall said.
But defending against the action of a rogue pilot are challenging to say the least. We now know that the lead pilot was locked out of the cockpit by the enforced locked door, which became the industry standard after terrorists took over airplanes on 9/11.
"The first thing they did is figure out a way to secure the cockpit with new doors, they're thick, they're heavy, they're bulletproof, and they actually involve a lot of procedures as far as how they're used," Gall said.
One procedure standard in the United States, but not throughout the world, is that a pilot is never left in the cockpit alone. If one pilot needs a bathroom break, a flight attendant is summoned to stay in the cockpit, and that flight attendant minds the door until allowing the returning pilot back in.
"Well, put it this way, if that procedure was followed, this probably wouldn't have happened," Gall says.
And Gall can only imagine there are two possibilities aboard the Germanwings airbus.
"Possibility one is that it's not a mandated procedure by the airline or possibility two is that it is a mandate procedure, but they chose not to follow it," Gall said.
But Gall concedes that even with all the regulations in world, it would be difficult -- nearly impossible -- to stop a pilot intent on scuttling his or her plane.
Canada and Germany's biggest airlines, including Lufthansa and Air Berlin, as well as low-cost European carriers easyJet and Norwegian Air Shuttle announced new rules requiring two crew members to always be present.
Some experts said even two isn't enough, and called for rules to require three.
"The flight deck is capable of accommodating three pilots and there shouldn't ever be a situation where there is only one person in the cockpit," said James Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, referring to the "jump seats" all airliners are equipped with.
Others questioned the wisdom of sealing off the cockpit at all.
"The kneejerk reaction to the events of 9/11 with the ill-thought reinforced cockpit door has had catastrophic consequences," said Philip Baum, London-based editor of the trade magazine Aviation Security International.
Neither the prosecutor nor Lufthansa - the parent company of low-cost carrier Germanwings - indicated there was anything the pilot could have done to avoid the crash.
Robin would not give details on the co-pilot's religion or his ethnic background. German authorities were taking charge of the investigation into Lubitz.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said that before Thursday's shocking revelations, the airline was already "appalled" by what had happened in its low-cost subsidiary.
"I could not have imagined that becoming even worse," he said in Cologne. "We choose our cockpit staff very, very carefully."
Lubitz joined Germanwings in September 2013, directly out of flight school, and had flown 630 hours. Spohr said the airline had no indication why he would have crashed the plane.
He underwent a regular security check on Jan. 27 and it found nothing untoward, and previous security checks in 2008 and 2010 also showed no issues, the local government in Duesseldorf said.
Lufthansa's chief said Lubitz started training in 2008 and there was a "several-month" gap in his training six years ago. Spohr said he couldn't say what the reason was, but after the break, "he not only passed all medical tests but also his flight training, all flying tests and checks."
Robin avoided describing the crash as a suicide.
"Usually, when someone commits suicide, he is alone," he said. "When you are responsible for 150 people at the back, I don't necessarily call that a suicide."
In the German town of Montabaur, acquaintances told The Associated Press that Lubitz appeared fine when they saw him last fall as he renewed his glider pilot's license.
"He was happy he had the job with Germanwings and he was doing well," said a member of the glider club, Peter Ruecker, who watched Lubitz learn to fly. "He gave off a good feeling."
Ruecker said he remembers Lubitz as "rather quiet but friendly" when he first showed up at the club as a 14- or 15-year-old saying he wanted to learn to fly.
Lubitz was accepted as a Lufthansa pilot trainee after finishing a tough German college preparatory school, Ruecker said.
Lubitz's Facebook page, deleted Tuesday, showed a smiling man in a dark brown jacket posing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It was restored as an "In Memory" site following the French prosecutor's news conference.
At the crash site, helicopters shuttled back and forth Thursday as investigators continue retrieving remains and pieces of the plane, shattered from the high-speed impact of the crash.
The principal of Joseph Koenig High School in Haltern, Germany, which lost 16 students and two teachers in the crash, said the state governor called him to tell him about the probe's conclusion.
"It is much, much worse than we had thought," principal Ulrich Wessel said.
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