BERLIN — Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz spent time online researching suicide methods and cockpit door security in the week before crashing Flight 9525, prosecutors said Thursday — the first evidence that the fatal descent may have been a premeditated act.
As the browsing history on a tablet computer found at Lubitz’s apartment added a disturbing new piece to the puzzle of the March 24 crash, French investigators said they had recovered the Airbus A320’s flight data recorder — another step toward completing the picture.
Attention has focused on Lubitz since investigators evaluated the plane’s cockpit voice recorder last week. They believe the 27-year-old locked his captain out of the cockpit during the flight from Barcelona to Duesseldorf and deliberately plunged the plane into a French mountainside.
Duesseldorf prosecutors said they had reviewed search terms from March 16-23 that were in the browser memory of the computer found in Lubitz’s home in the city.
The co-pilot researched “on one hand medical treatment methods, and on the other hand informed himself about types and ways of going about a suicide,” prosecutors’ spokesman Ralf Herrenbrueck said in a statement.
“In addition, on at least one day, (Lubitz) concerned himself for several minutes with search terms about cockpit doors and their security precautions,” he added.
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Prosecutors didn’t specify what medical treatment Lubitz was looking into and declined to disclose the individual search terms that he used. They said personal correspondence and search terms on the tablet “support the conclusion that the machine was used by the co-pilot in the relevant period.”
In Marseille, prosecutor Brice Robin underlined French investigators’ conviction that “he was alive until the moment of impact, we are nearly certain. … Alive and conscious.” He also said the co-pilot appears to have acted repeatedly to stop an excessive speed alarm from sounding.
He said investigators had found 150 DNA profiles — matching the number of people aboard the plane — but it will take time to match them with DNA samples provided by victims’ families.
Investigators hope the flight data recorder will reveal more information on what happened to the plane and the co-pilot’s actions at the controls. Robin said it was found by a gendarme buried on the side of a ravine that was “already explored several times.”
The flight data recorder was “completely blackened” as though it had been burned, but it was “possibly usable,” Robin said. It captures 25 hours of information on the position and condition of nearly every part of the plane.
German prosecutors have said Lubitz’s medical records from before he received his pilot’s license referred to “suicidal tendencies,” but visits to doctors since then showed no record of that or aggression toward others.
Investigators also found torn-up notes from doctors excusing Lubitz from work, including one that would have kept him off work on the day of the crash.
Related reading: German police search for hints of motive
Earlier this week, Lufthansa, Germanwings’ parent company, said it knew six years ago that Lubitz had suffered from an episode of “severe depression” before he finished his flight training.
However, Germanwings, which hired Lubitz in September 2013, said Thursday it had been unaware of the depressive episode.
Prosecutors have said that they haven’t found any sign of a physical illness and have no evidence he told anyone what he was going to do.
Also Thursday, Germany announced the creation of an expert task force to examine what went wrong and consider whether changes are needed regarding cockpit doors, how pilots pass medical evaluations and how companies recognize psychological problems in employees.
France’s air accident investigation agency is already examining cockpit entry and psychological screening procedures.
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 doesn’t go into effect if the person in the cockpit specifically denies entry.
The impact of the crash shattered the plane into tiny pieces. Robin said that investigators have found and studied 2,854 body parts at the site.
They also found 42 cellphones in what Robin called a “very, very damaged” condition.
No video or audio from the cellphones of those aboard the plane has been released publicly. However, a French reporter says he viewed video from one cellphone video thanks to an intermediary close to the crash investigation, although he does not have a copy of it himself.
Frederic Helbert, who reported on the video this week in the French magazine Paris-Match and the German tabloid Bild, told The Associated Press that it was shot from the back of the plane, so “you cannot see their faces, but you can hear them screaming and screaming.”
“No one is moving or getting up,” he told the AP in Paris. “People understand something terrible is going to happen.”
Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley and Angela Charlton in Paris and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.