Search and rescue teams were scrambling on Tuesday to reach a remote and rugged site in the southern French Alps where the French aviation authorities confirmed that a German plane carrying 144 passengers and six crew members had crashed while en route to Düsseldorf from Barcelona. It was feared that there were no survivors.
The wreckage of the aircraft, an Airbus A320 operated by Germanwings, a budget subsidiary of Lufthansa, was located by a French military helicopter near the town of Prads-Haute-Bléone, according to Éric Héraud, a spokesman in Paris for the aviation authority, the Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile.
It was unclear when the pilots last communicated with air traffic controllers. About 40 minutes after takeoff, at approximately 10:40 a.m., radio contact with the aircraft was lost.
Shortly thereafter, air traffic controllers sent out an alert, as the plane descended rapidly from a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet while flying over the town of Barcelonnette in the Alpes de Haute-Provence region, French aviation authorities said.
President François Hollande of France said many of the victims were German, and said that no French passengers were believed to be on board. King Felipe VI of Spain said that Spanish and Turkish citizens had been on the flight.
“The conditions of the accident, which have not yet been clarified, suggest that there might not be any survivors,” he said. He added that the authorities did not yet know the identities of the victims.
Mr. Hollande said he would be in contact with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and King Felipe, who cut short a visit to France on Tuesday.
The French president said that emergency teams were heading to the site, but that access was very difficult. The area of the crash is remote and covered in snow. Helicopters have been dispatched to the scene.
Mr. Hollande added that all information would be shared with the German and Spanish authorities.
“We must feel grief, because this is a tragedy that happened on our soil,” Mr. Hollande said. “I want to make sure that there have been no other consequences as the accident happened in a very difficult area to access, and I do not know yet if there were houses nearby. We will know in the next few hours. In the meantime, we must show support.”
Bruno Lambert, a mountain guide who lives in Chanolles, a tiny hamlet in the Prads-Haute-Bléone municipality, said the area of the crash was sparsely populated and had harsh mountain terrain. He said there had been heavy snowfall recently, and that the area was prone to avalanches.
“The mountains are very hard to access, there is no road access, neither in the summer nor the winter,” he said. “The people around here live in very isolated hamlets, and at this time of year, there is almost no one.
“With these mountains, it is highly improbable that there are survivors,” he said.
A local official in the region, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said that an initial survey of the area by a helicopter showed that debris had been spread across a very craggy area.
The French Interior Ministry spokesman, Pierre-Henry Brandet, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that crash debris had been found. He told BFM television that the search would be an “extremely long” and arduous, because the plane went down in a remote area.
Sandrine Julien, an employee at the town hall in Seynes-les-Alpes, said that a command center had been set up in the town. Neither she nor her colleagues had seen or heard anything, she said, and as a result they had all been surprised when rescue operations started.
“There are four to five helicopters, and lots of police cars, firefighters and ambulances,” Ms. Julien said, adding that the crash site was at an elevation of more than 6,500 feet. “So the helicopters are doing most of the work at the moment.”
Hans-Josef Böing, an administrator for the city of Haltern am See in Germany, said two teachers and 14 students from the 10th-grade Spanish class of the local high school had been on the airplane, returning from a class exchange near Barcelona.
“That is all that we know at this point, but we have to fear that it is as bad as we imagine,” Mr. Böing said by telephone interview. He added that many parents had gone to the Düsseldorf airport to meet their children, and that they were receiving care from psychiatrists.
Barcelonnette, with a population of less than 3,000, is the largest town in the Ubaye Valley. Situated on the right bank of the Ubaye River, it is surrounded by mountains and lies north of Nice.
The aircraft that crashed, an A320, is the workhorse of the Airbus fleet, with more than 5,600 of the single-aisle jets currently in service with hundreds of airlines worldwide. Last year, more than one billion passengers flew on jets in the A320 series — which includes a smaller version, the A319, and a stretched model, the A321 — according to estimates by Ascend, a London-based aviation consultancy.
Since entering into service in 1988, the A320 has been involved in 12 fatal accidents, according to Ascend.
“We are aware of the media reports and all efforts are now going towards assessing the situation,” Airbus said in a statement. “We will provide further information as soon as available.”
In Germany, Ms. Merkel expressed her deep sympathy for the families of the victims, saying that the crash was a “terrible shock” and that there would be thorough investigation.
“I feel terribly sorry, because so many people died in this disaster,” she said.“Our thoughts and prayers are with these people,”
Ms. Merkel said that Germany would work closely with France to coordinate efforts and determine what had happened, and that she would fly to southern France on Wednesday to meet with the authorities there.
“We all feel so deeply sad and our thoughts are with the victims and their relatives and loved ones,” she said.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain said he had spoken with Ms. Merkel and with the Spanish king. “We are all deeply moved and will do everything we can to help the families of the victims,” he said.
Germanwings, based in Cologne, was founded in 2002 and acquired by Lufthansa in 2009. It has since grown to become the German flagship’s main operator for domestic and short-haul European flights from cities outside its main hubs of Munich and Frankfurt. The company operates a fleet of around 81 planes, of which about two-thirds are Airbus A320s and A319s.
French news reports said that if the deaths were confirmed, the crash would be the most deadly crash in France in 30 years, and the third most deadly crash on French soil. In December 1981, a chartered Yugoslav DC-9 jetliner, minutes from Ajaccio Airport in Corsica, smashed into a mountain, killing all 180 people on board. To date, the deadliest crash in France occurred in 1974, when a Turkish Airlines DC-10 crashed outside Paris, killing more than 335 people.
Reporting was contributed by Dan Bilefsky, Maïa de la Baume and Aurelien Breeden from Paris, and Alison Smale and Melissa Eddy from Berlin.