Jan-Arwed Richter/picture-alliance/AP
Tim Nudd and Stephen M. Silverman
March 24, 2015 07:35 AM

A German passenger plane carrying 148 people has crashed in southern France while en route from Barcelona to Düsseldorf, according to multiple reports.

French president Fran ois Hollande said Tuesday that he fears the worst after the Airbus A320, operated by Lufthansa’s Germanwings budget airline, went down in the French Alps.

“There were 148 people on board,” he said in a statement. “The conditions of the accident, which have not yet been clarified, lead us to think there are no survivors … The accident happened in a zone that is particularly hard to access.”

The local newspaper, La Provence, said the plane was carrying 142 passengers, two pilots and four cabin crew.

Crash site in the French Alps
Maxppp/Landov

The wreckage has been located at a site near Barcelonette (about 8,850 feet above sea level) and is scattered over an estimated 4½ square acres. In a race against severe weather, authorities are rushing in 210 police and three columns of fire-rescue squads. By later afternoon Tuesday it is anticipated that search helicopters will need to be grounded when a storm expected to bring 40-m.p.h. winds will make the site completely inaccessible until Wednesday afternoon.

Some 16 students from a village outside Düsseldorf, returning with two professors from an exchange year in Spain, are believed to be among the victims, according to reports.

French officials confirmed that the plane’s black box has been located and its contents will be promptly examined. Images of the crash site also began to surface Tuesday, showing the debris spread out across a remote section of the Alps.

Crash site in the French Alps
Maxppp /Landov

News reports say that the aircraft disappeared from the radar shortly after 11 a.m. local time, and a police helicopter saw a column of smoke in the area about 15 minutes later.

In a statement posted to the Lufthansa Twitter account, CEO Carsten Spohr said: “We do not yet know what has happened to flight 4U 9525. My deepest sympathy goes to the families and friends of our passengers and crew on 4U 9525. If our fears are confirmed, this is a dark day for Lufthansa. We hope to find survivors.”

Aviation websites were reporting that the plane experienced a rapid descent and that the last words from the cockpit were: “Emergency, emergency.”

The Guardian and others are releasing updates about the crash as they happen.

The crash site in the southern French Alps is extremely difficult to reach and inaccessible to vehicles, according to locals.

Crash site in the French Alps
Maxppp /Landov

“It is extremely steep,” said the mayor of neighboring village Seyne-les-Alpes, Francis Hermitte. “It is only accessible by helicopter. The only other way is to walk, which takes hours.”

An official at that village’s City Hall, eight miles from the crash site, tells PEOPLE: “[The] weather was good in the region, there were clouds overhead but no snowfall. It’s mountainous, though, and very difficult to reach.”

The crash site is in a compact 1.3-square-mile area.

With reporting by PETER MIKELBANK

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