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 of 38,000 feet, before slamming into the mountainside eight minutes later.
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.
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.
Airlines in Europe are not required to have two people in the cockpit at all times, unlike the standard U.S. operating procedure, which was changed after the 9/11 attacks to require a flight attendant to take the spot of a briefly departing pilot.
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.
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.