Friday, 27 March 2015

Germanwings crash: why don't we know exactly yet who was on board Flight 9525?

More than 48 hours after the Germanwings flight crashed in the Alps, politicians and the airlines still seem unsure who was on the plane.

The authorities initially announced that the crash had claimed the lives of 150 people, 144 passengers, four crew and two pilots. But the nationalities of those on board are unknown.

The passenger manifest has remained secret, and as passengers on board the flight only needed to show their passport - no record appears to have been taken as they left Barcelona airport.

Countries who signed up to the Schengen agreement have removed internal borders, allowing travellers to "freely circulate without being subjected to border checks", according to the EU.

Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, was unable to say how many Britons were involved, saying on Tuesday that there were three "or more" on board.

"We cannot rule out the possibility that there are further British people involved," he said.

"The level of information on the flight manifest doesn't allow us to rule out that possibility until we've completed some further checks."

Germanwings, meanwhile, repeated on Wednesday that there was only one Briton among the dead.

The number of Spaniards on board also varied wildly - on Tuesday night the authorities said there were 45 onboard, but Germanwings said on Wednesday morning that there were 35.

By noon on Wednesday the figure had changed again. "Forty-nine Spanish victims have been identified" so far said Francisco Martinez, Spain's junior security minister. But he added that it was a provisional figure.

According to the Iranian media there were two Iranian sports journalists on board and there is speculation there may also be Argentinian victims.

Philip Baum, an aviation security expert, said that residents of Schengen countries could board flights using only national identity cards rather than passports, which could have added to the uncertainty.

"In the UK you can't do that because we haven't got a national ID card system, but within the Shengen countries people can use national ID cards. That, however, may be an indicator not of nationality but simply of residency rights, and that may mean it takes longer to work out where each passenger is actually from."

The lack of a clear record appears to suggest that in the event of a suspected terror attack, the airlines have no immediate way of checking whether citizens from any countries deemed to be likely potential sources of terrorism are on board. It also appears to make things harder from a consular point of view: embassies need to know how many citizens from their countries were on board in order to anticipate how much assistance to provide for families of the bereaved.

A German government source admitted that because of Europe's border protocols, under which no record of passports and ID cards is required, there is no way to know precisely the nationalities of who was on board.

He explained that the passenger list has not been released is because not all the families have been informed. This is being hampered because they are struggling to work out the nationalities of those on board.

Spain said some passengers may have dual nationality, confusing the issue further.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, European leaders discussed whether to reintroduce identity checks within the EU's free travel zone. Spain, France and Germany in particular were pushing for curbs on passport-free travel

Thursday 26 March 2015

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Flight 4U 9525: specialists will begin the complex process of identifying the bodies of the victims

Every few hours today an ambulance or a refrigerated lorry left the Alpine field which has become the ad hoc marshalling yard for the vast operation to reach the wreckage of flight 4U 9525. Inside each vehicle, carefully concealed under layers of polythene wrapping, were some of the remains of the 150 people who perished on board.

The first bodies recovered from the site of the Germanwings crash began to be transferred some 48 hours after the disaster by the fleets of helicopters that now shuttle in a constant clatter between the temporary airfield in this ski resort and the isolated mountain valley where the Airbus A320 disintegrated.

But these sombre journeys, carried out under a blue light escort, are only the beginning of the grim process of identifying the passengers - school children, businessmen, mothers and fathers - whose bodies could not have survived the appalling impact of the crash intact.

Emergency workers and witnesses have spoken of the unspeakable sight that greeted them as they walked through the ravine where much of the wreckage is concentrated. One mountain guide told The Independent: “It is difficult to say but there are not whole bodies. There are only parts and they are small, the size of a laptop computer. It is beyond distressing to see what has been done to these fellow human beings.”

RRecovery teams are facing the dauntingly grim task of scouring an area spanning thousands of metres on tough mountain terrain in the task to find body parts of crash victims from the downed Germanwings flight.

In a chilling press conference outlining the nature of the flight’s last moments, French authorities detailed the difficulty in identifying victims and collecting body parts on the mountain morgue.

Considering the nature of the impact and the state of the bodies, it is likely to take weeks to account for all the parts.

“Imagine 150 victims in an area of over two hectares, between 1600 and 2000 metres,” said Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin.

The process is made easier by flags placed on the slope to mark locations of victims but the recovery is expected to last until the end of next week as teams face the even tougher task retrieving, identifying and delivering the bodies safely to ground.

“There were no more whole bodies, Fabrice Rouve, who works with the High Mountain division of the gendarmes told the New York Times.

The crash site is inaccessible on foot and by road and helicopters are unable to land on the slopes because there is nowhere flat enough to make a safe landing.

Recovery teams must be lowered down to the area by a cable and inexperienced officials must be accompanied by experienced rescuers to ensure they don’t slide down the slope.

Mr Robin detailed the “evacuation” process, where teams collect parts and send them back via helicopter.

“We put them on body bags in a stretcher and then they are put down in a nearby unit where the post mortem is carried out.

“Then we continue with the DNA identification.

“This is why these operations will take quite a long time.”

The technique is favoured by teams “due to the very difficult mountain terrain”.

It is from this starting point that the French authorities, helped by their German and Spanish opposites, must complete what is the first priority in the aftermath of the disaster - that of restoring to the dead their dignity and restoring their remains to those they have left behind.

In order to deal with this immense task, a small army of specialists has been deployed to the crash site and the surrounding areas to use the full battery of forensic, scientific and anthropological tools available to identify each of the dead.

They include forensic dentists, medical anthropologists and DNA specialists as well as several dozen dedicated search and recovery workers deployed to the isolated and treacherous crash site to label and catalogue each human fragment. Among them is a specialist Incident Response Team deployed by Interpol to co-ordinate what is in effect an international disaster with victims from around the world.

Brice Robin, the state prosecutor based in Marseille who is in charge of the French investigation, said: “The identification procedure is going to last several weeks. We are faced with 150 bodies which have undergone multiple trauma.”

The solution to this heartrending jigsaw lies in the bringing together of several sources of evidence, ranging from the pre-existing medical and personal records of the passengers to comparisons with the DNA of relatives, to the clues offered by a single bone.

Georges Leonetti, head of the medico-legal service in Marseille, said: “There is little chance that we will recover complete bodies. In order to achieve identification we therefore have to resort to the clues provided when people were still alive.”

Teams from Spain and Germany have already begun compiling medical dossiers on each of the victims, seeking identifying details which can range from dental records to operation scars to descriptions of appearance. DNA swabs have been taken from family members and similar work will be carried out in each of the countries affected by the disaster, including Britain.

Mr Leonetti said: “These are all details which allow us to compare the remains one against the other to arrive at an eventual identification.”

Among the most delicate work going on at the crash site in the Vallée de la Blanche and in laboratories across the south of France will be that of the forensic anthropologists who must comb the crash site for clues that tell the stories of the departed.

One expert likened the work to that of archaeologists as they sift a site, albeit one of the most recent and overwhelming trauma. A recovery worker at Seyne-les-Alpes said: “A single bone can tell you the sex or the size of an individual. Each clue must be recovered and entered into the process. It is careful, painstaking work.”

It is also work which, according to the worker, will potentially endure for months. He added: “It is our duty to give back their loved ones to the families of those who died, no matter how difficult that can be.”

Families of the victims are anxious to retrieve their loved ones bodies but “until the full DNA is carried out and finalised it’s only at that point I can give the bodies back,” said Mr Robin.

“But the DNA takes a while.”

Friday 27 March 2015

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Flight 4U 9525: First bodies recovered, challenges weigh heavily on recovery efforts

This mountain village was a remote place, a haven for holiday hikers and seasoned rock climbers, until this week, when it became a place of incomprehensible tragedy for the families of the passengers on a routine German flight.

The crash of the Airbus A320 jet on a snow-sprinkled range near here on Tuesday turned the deep ravines into a mountain morgue and the village into a place of mourning. It also transformed it into a gathering place, as would-be rescuers, investigators, cabinet members on Tuesday, and the leaders of France, Germany and Spain on Wednesday, all converged here in the wake of the Germanwings flight’s inexplicable descent into a mountainside.

As the names of the dead began to trickle out — 150, all told, from at least 15 countries — and as investigators sought to solve the mystery of why the flight went down, residents here also prepared to receive the victims’ families. Hundreds of the relatives are expected to descend on the valley, said Francis Hermitte, the mayor.

The magnitude of the task of recovering the bodies was sinking in on Wednesday as seven helicopters roared nonstop over this village, up to the slate and limestone escarpment strewn with pieces of wreckage. It was becoming clear that both determining the cause of the crash and accounting for the human toll would probably be a lengthy mission. It is likely to take more than two weeks to bring the wreckage and body parts off the mountain, and identifying the 150 people who died will take much longer, rescue personnel said.

The crash site is inaccessible by road or foot, and even helicopters cannot land because there is nowhere flat enough. Rescuers, doctors and investigators must be lowered onto the mountainside by cables.

Their task then is to preserve the debris in packages that must be hauled up to the hovering helicopters, said Fabrice Rouve, 46, an experienced rescue worker and former soldier who now works with the High Mountain division of the gendarmes.

All non-Alpine-trained officials at the scene — doctors, investigators and airplane engineers — must be accompanied by Alpine rescuers to ensure that they do not slip and tumble down the mountain. There are worries, as well, that intruders would find a way to reach the crash site and disturb the debris, which is essential to the investigation, said Mr. Rouve, so five gendarmes were being left overnight to guard the site.

Mr. Rouve, like others who had flown up to the mountain, was struck, if not shaken, by the sheer destruction he saw. Xavier Roy, the coordinator for emergency personnel, said after flying over the site that he was surprised by the absence of big pieces of wreckage, an engine or a large piece of the fuselage, typically visible after a crash.

“Here, we are not seeing anything except bits and pieces,” Mr. Roy said. “The largest piece we have seen so far is the equivalent of a car door.” He said that the initial rescue workers who reached the scene on Tuesday had scoured the area, looking for movement or sounds from any potential survivors, but that they had not heard or seen anything to suggest that anyone might have lived through the crash.

n story Leaders of the three countries most affected by the tragedy — President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain — went to the mountain Wednesday afternoon to thank emergency medical workers and pay homage to the dead.

Mr. Hollande was the only one of the three who did not lose fellow citizens, and he spoke in a heartfelt tone, as if reassuring a family member, and called the leaders by their first names. He later promised that France would do everything it could to help, from investigating to supporting the families of the victims who were expected to come to this hamlet in the next few days. “We must understand what happened; we owe it to the families and to the countries that are impacted by this tragedy,” he said.

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Rajoy thanked Mr. Hollande, but Ms. Merkel, who lost 72 of her citizens in the crash and has sometimes seemed at odds with the French president over policy, was moved by the French outpouring. “Dear François, I’d like to say a heartfelt thank you in the name of millions of Germans who appreciate this German-Franco friendship,” she said.

The plane touched families from at least 15 countries, but the biggest shares were from Spain, which lost 45 citizens, and from Germany. Among those who died were a newlywed couple hoping to settle in Düsseldorf, the flight’s destination; the opera singers Oleg Bryjak, a bass baritone, and Maria Radner, a contralto; the wife of a Catalan politician; an Australian hoping to start a teaching career in France, and a mother with her 7-month-old baby. There were 16 high school students and two of their teachers, returning to Germany after a week at an exchange program outside of Barcelona, where the flight took off.

The flight was in so many ways a reflection of Europe today, with the majority of those on board making a short hop from one European Union country to another, mixed with a smattering of farther-flung visitors.

On Wednesday, as early-morning fog gave way to a cold overcast day, emergency workers were placing flags to mark the locations of the victims.

Mr. Rouve said that in more than 14 years on the job, he had dug people out of avalanches, rescued stranded rock climbers and recovered the bodies of fallen climbers. But he said the crash of the Germanwings flight was a different order of destruction. “All of my colleagues who are experts, we all agreed, we had never seen anything like this,” he said. “First we saw just some tendrils of smoke from the wreckage, and it’s hard to imagine for a big aircraft like this, but there was nothing left,” he added.

Mr. Rouve said that what was most distressing to him was the state of the victims’ remains.

“There were no more whole bodies,” he said, although he could not be sure he had seen the entire site because the wreckage was scattered over a large area.

Seynes-les-Alpes, a village of 1,400 in a valley a three-hour drive northwest of Nice, found itself overrun. The atmosphere was somber, with natives especially distressed that their village had been turned into a place of such tragedy. Many spontaneously offered to lend a hand in any way they could, as if wanting to make amends for the destruction in what almost all locals call “our mountains.”

While the authorities were making plans to help hundreds of families travel to the village, residents and local hoteliers offered families places to stay for free, Mayor Hermitte said.

Villagers set up a temporary chapel in a school gymnasium for the families to pray and be alone, and educators at the local high school offered to act as translators for the families.

René Vaugeois, who retired here more than 10 years ago and has the ruddy look of an enthusiastic hiker, said that he felt sad that the mountain environment which had brought him so much happiness was now enveloped in mourning. “We are very moved; those are our mountains, we hike there every summer and we’ve done every peak here,” he said. Asked whether he would take victims’ families into his home he did not hesitate: “I would do it.”

Friday 27 March 2015

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