A passenger plane carrying 150 people crashed in a remote part of the French Alps on Tuesday, officials said, warning that there are not expected to be any survivors.
French President Francois Hollande called the crash of the Airbus A320 a "tragedy" and said the wreckage was in a hard-to-reach area not far from the town of Barcelonette. The French interior ministry confirmed to NBC News that one of the black boxes from Germanwings Flight 9525 had been found as rescue teams converged on the crash site.
"We saw an aircraft that had literally been ripped apart,the bodies are in a state of destruction, there is not one intact piece of wing or fuselage,'' Bruce Robin, prosecutor for the city of Marseille, told Reuters after flying over the crash zone in a helicopter.
French authorities suspended the search as night fell Tuesday. Lt. Col. Simon-Pierre Delannoy of the regional police rescue service said on BFM television that the conditions for the search had become too difficult.
The flight left Barcelona at 9:55 a.m. local time, or just before 5 a.m. ET, en route to Dusseldorf with 144 passengers and six crew members on board.
The airline — a budget carrier run by Lufthansa — said it did not yet have information on what caused the accident but that the 24-year-old Airbus had descended rapidly after reaching its cruising height and continued losing altitude for eight minutes.
"The aircraft's contact with French radar, French air traffic controllers, ended at 10:53 a.m. at an altitude of about 6,000 feet. The plane then crashed," Germanwings' Managing Director Thomas Winkelmann told a press conference. However, tracking sites including Flightradar24 showed a similar eight-minute descent but said last contact with the flight was at 10:40 local time (6:40 a.m. ET).
There were conflicting reports over whether the flight sent out a distress call. Weather conditions in the area of the crash were good at the time the plane went down, and Germanwings said the captain of the plane had logged more than 6,000 flight hours on the Airbus.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve immediately flew to the region, telling reporters once he landed that "exceptional measures" were put in place to assist in the rescue and investigation.
Ten helicopters and one military aircraft were being mobilized and bolstering the troops, national police and nearly 300 firemen on the scene, he said.
As rescue efforts were underway Tuesday, officials in the nearby town of Digne urged people not to approach the crash zone. The gymnasium in another nearby town, Seyne-les-Alpes, was being set up to take in bodies or survivors from the crash, the town confirmed to NBC News.
Germanwings confirmed that two babies were on board. At least 67 passengers were from Germany and 45 were from Spain.
President Barack Obama said U.S. officials were working to confirm if any Americans were on board, telling a news conference that he had called Germany's chancellor to express his condolences and offer assistance to the investigation.
German officials said that 16 students and two teachers from a high school in Haltern, 40 miles from Dusseldorf, were on the plane.
Two opera singers were on the plane. Contralto Maria Radner and bass baritone Oleg Bryjak recently performed in Siegfried at Barcleona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, the opera house said in a statement. Radner's husband and baby were also on the plane, The Associated Press reported.
The mayor of the small Spanish town of Jaca told the AP that a woman originally from the town, Marina Bandres, and her baby boy were aboard the plane. Bandres lives in Britain but was in town for a funeral, Jaca Mayor Victor Barrio told the AP.
Two passengers on the plane were Australian, the country's foreign minister said. The woman and her adult son were from Victoria.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Tuesday that "based on the information available to us, it is sadly likely that there were some British nationals on board the flight," but didn't speculate as to how many.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement that the "harrowing news" has put her nation in "deep mourning, calling the suffering of victims' families "immeasurable."
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed "compassion and solidarity" with the victims, saying on Twitter that the accident has "plunged" his nation into "deep sadness."
Spain's King Felipe, who was in Paris at the time of the crash, said he was cutting short his trip to France.
Spainish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said all support will be given to families of those affected and that he was heading back to Madrid to chair an emergency meeting. AENA, which operates Barcelona Airport, said it had set up a crisis room for relatives.
There were no indications that the crash was related to terrorism, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.
Lufthansa said it was a "dark day" for the airline. "We are all deeply saddened and distressed," CEO Carsten Spohr said.
The plane's descent was rapid but appeared to be controlled, experts said.
"It didn’t spin or veer off course, it was cruising quite happily," said U.K.-based aviation journalist Anthony Avis. "It didn’t nosedive as some are speculating, it descended at between 2,000 and 4,000 feet per minute which is significant but not a problem for an aircraft like this which suggests he pilot did have some control.”
Airbus said the aircraft involved in the crash was delivered to Lufthansa in 1991 and accumulated approximately 58,300 flight hours in some 46,700 flights. It said a team of technical advisers would be dispatched to assist the investigation into what brought the plane down, adding that the "concerns and sympathy" of Airbus employees goes to all those affected.
Lucille Polizzi, an 18-year-old student who lives near Barcelonnette, described hearing a large noise that she initially thought was a military plane but later learned was most likely the doomed jet.
"I was a bit surprised by the sound," she told NBC News. "Some military planes train up here so we are used to some big noises, but this one sounded different."
Germanwings had to cancel seven flights after shaken crew members said they were unfit to fly. Spohr said that's understandable, as many crews knew crew members on the crashed plane. "It is now more important to ensure psychological assistance if needed," he said.
Tuesday's accident was the first large passenger-jet crash on French soil since the 2000 Concorde disaster, but not the first aviation tragedy to strike near the town of Barcelonette. In 1953, an Air France crash there killed 49 people.
NBC News' Jake Cigainero and Brinley Bruton, and The Associated Press and Reuters, contributed to this report.