SEYNE-LES-ALPES, France (AFP) - Helicopters began airlifting the remains of the victims of a Germanwings plane crash from the disaster site in the French Alps Wednesday afternoon, a source close to the investigation told AFP.
The operation to recover the remains of the 150 passengers and crew killed in the Airbus A320 crash was later called off for the night, the source added.
The mountain crash site, which is situated at about 1,500m altitude, is accessible only by helicopter or an arduous hike on foot.
At least 51 Spaniards and 72 Germans died Tuesday when Flight 4U9525 from Barcelona to Duesseldorf crashed into the mountainside after an unexplained eight-minute descent from cruising altitude.
The crew sent no distress signal.
Lufthansa, which owns the low-cost operator Germanwings, said the aircraft was carrying people from a total of 18 countries.
The families of the victims are expected to gather near the crash site Thursday.
Lufthansa announced it would lay on two special flights to take the family members from Spain and Germany to the southern city of Marseille in France.
Earlier, French investigators said they had succeeded in extracting "usable data" from the first black box recovered from the site.
Remi Jouty, head of French air crash investigation agency BEA, said there was still not "the slightest explanation" at this stage on the reasons for the crash.
"We have just succeeded in extracting usable data from the cockpit voice recorder," he said, referring to the black box that records sounds and conversations from the cockpit.
But he said the data had only been retrieved in the last few minutes before his press conference, and investigators had not yet analysed the recordings.