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Germanwings crash victims remembered one year on

Kate Brady (AFP, dpa)
March 24, 2016

Commemoration ceremonies have been held in France and Germany to mark the first anniversary of the deliberate crashing of a Germanwings flight in the French Alps. All 150 people onboard the Airbus A320 died in the crash.

Memorial in Haltern
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kusch

More than 600 relatives of the 149 crash victims gathered in the Alpine village of Le Vernet on Thursday to observe a minute's silence.

With the help of volunteer firefighters and mountain guides, around 80 people later made a 3-kilometer (1.8-mile) pilgrimage to the crash site at an altitude of around 1,500 meters (4,900 feet). A red stake planted in the soil marks the exact site where the plane went down. Plans to take all friends and relatives to visit the crash site by minibus were called off because bad weather has made the forest road impassable.

Memorial service in Le Vernet
Hundreds of relatives of the the crash victims gathered in the French town of Le Vernet, close to the crash siteImage: Reuters/J.-P. Pelissier

Flight 4U9525 was en route from Barcelona to Düsseldorf on March 24, 2015, when co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, 27, deliberately put the plane into a shallow dive, crashing it into the mountainside.

Black box recordings revealed that Lubitz took advantage of the other pilot's excusing himself to use the toilet to lock his colleague out of the cockpit and force the plane to rapidly descend.

The revelation prompted new laws around the world, requiring at least two members of airline staff to be in the cockpit at all times.

School exchange students remembered

Among the 149 crash victims were 15 pupils and two female teachers from Joseph Koenig High School in Haltern, close to Düsseldorf. The staff and students had been returning from a school exchange close to Barcelona.

Church bells in the small German town rang at 10:41 a.m. local time (0931 UTC) on Thursday - the time when the plane crashed. An ecumenical service was held shortly after in Haltern's central square.

"It is true that this accident has changed our town greatly. We have never experienced anything like this," Haltern Mayor Bodo Klimpel said.

"It is certainly the worst and most difficult thing to have happened to this town since the Second World War."

In a letter to the pupils' parents on the anniversary, German Chancellor Angela Merkal said "many people including members of the government [were with them] in their thoughts."

"You are not alone in your pain," she wrote.

A separate ceremony and memorial inauguration was also held at nearby Düsseldorf International Airport. on Thursday. In Spain, several vigils were held on the eve of the anniversary.

US court case

Attending the ceremony in Le Vernet on Thursday were the heads of Germanwings parent company Lufthansa, Thomas Winkelmann and Carsten Spohr.

The airline has denied any wrongdoing but is facing a lawsuit in the US, focusing on the Lufthansa training facility in Arizona.

Lubitz interrupted his pilot training there in 2009 dueto mental health problems. Lawyers for some victims' families argue he should not have been allowed to resume training.

The discovery that some mental health professionals knew of Lubitz's condition and did not report it also caused aviation authorities to question the limits of doctor-patient confidentiality.

A recent report by French air accident investigators called on Germany to clarify its rules about doctors breaching their patients' privacy when public safety is in jeopardy. Germany's ruling coalition has also called for random drug and alcohol tests to be administered to pilots.

'Not the day for legal issues'

"We are here today to show our respect to the victims and show that we support them," Spohr said on Thursday.

"Today is not the day to talk about legal issues, today we are just here, with 100 Lufthansa employees, to help the families and support them in their grief."

Lufthansa has so far paid out 50,000 euros ($55,000) for each victim. A further 25,000 euros is still to be paid, and next-of-kin are to receive 10,000 euros.

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