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Alpine vigil marks year since murderous co-pilot crashed Germanwings jetliner

AP/AFP-JIJI

In a solemn day of remembrance, grieving families gathered in a French Alpine village to pay homage to loved ones a year after the deranged co-pilot of a Germanwings plane flew the passenger jet into a mountainside, killing all 150 people aboard.

Hundreds of people attended Thursday’s commemoration that began with a private ceremony and a minute of silence. Families had the option to visit the crash site on the mountain overlooking Le Vernet. A wreath-laying was the only public moment as families of victims — mostly German and Spanish — marked the grim day.

The Airbus A320 was en route from Barcelona to Duesseldorf when co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, 27, locked the pilot out of the cockpit and thrust the aircraft into an accelerated dive. France’s accident investigating body, the BEA, said in a report released this month that the remains of Lubitz, who had a long history of psychological problems, bore traces of anti-depressants and a sleeping medication.

“It happened on our mountains, and we have victims’ families visiting us every week, families who come and pay tribute,” said Le Vernet Mayor Francois Balique.

Villagers in Le Vernet and nearby Prads-Haute-Bleone have taken on the role of second family for many of the grieving.

“Today, this bond is still alive, this friendship between the families and ourselves, we want to make it last, it’s very important for us. The role we set for ourselves is to accompany the families each time they come here, and comfort them as they mourn,” said Prads-Haute-Bleone Mayor Bernard Bartolini.

A first responder to the disaster, Sebastien Beaud of the High Mountain Gendarmerie Unit, said in an interview on the eve of the commemoration that it quickly became clear that finding survivors was an impossible task.

“There’s smoke, flames, debris everywhere … human remains,” he said, recalling walking down the mountainside.

Some families preferred to stay away from organized memorials.

Juergen Fischenich, who lost his 33-year-old son, Sven, in the crash, said family and friends would mourn privately.

“We’re not traveling to Le Vernet because we don’t want to be among a mass of people when we’re thinking about our son,” Fischenich said in an email.

Sven Fischenich, an HP employee and volunteer fireman, had been traveling home to his wife and baby daughter.

In another commemoration, mourners gathered in front of a church in the German town of Haltern am See for a minute of silence. Two teachers and 16 students from the town’s Joseph-Koenig high school died in the crash.

Town Mayor Bodo Kimpel said the tragedy had brought people in the town closer together. “During this difficult time we found a common way to deal with this tragedy, the grief,” he said in an interview.

Parent company Lufthansa denies wrongdoing, and has so far offered no compensation beyond what is legally required under German law, riling some victims’ families. It is phasing out the Germanwings brand in favor of Eurowings.

Questions have been raised over the role played by the dozens of doctors Lubitz consulted. One referred Lubitz to a psychiatric clinic two weeks before the crash, suspecting a potential “psychotic episode,” Arnaud Desjardin, leader of the BEA’s Germanwings investigation, said when the agency presented its final report.

A spokesman for Duesseldorf prosecutors confirmed Thursday that several doctors had refused to make statements to police following the crash, citing their right under German law to safeguard their patient’s confidentiality even after death.

However, Christoph Kumpa told The Associated Press that “knowledge gaps … aren’t expected, as in all cases the patient files were seized under judges’ orders independently of any willingness (by doctors) to testify.”

Some families of British and German victims plan to take legal action against the Arizona flight school, where Lufthansa trains commercial pilots, alleging Lubitz should have been prevented from qualifying, the Britain-based Irwin Mitchell law firm said in a statement this week.

Around 600 people gathered in the tiny village in the French Alps to mark one year since their loved ones died.

The private ceremony began around 0930 GMT in Le Vernet, after which about 300 of them made a pilgrimage to the remote crash site at an elevation of some 1,500 meters (4,900 feet).

Aided by volunteer firefighters and mountain guides, they walked the muddy, snow-covered mountain path, much of it carved out to allow emergency workers to access the site.

A red stake planted in the soil marks the exact spot where the plane went down, killing all 150 people on board.

The ill-fated plane took off from Barcelona and was headed to Duesseldorf in Germany when German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, 27, flew it into the ground on March 24, 2015.

One young German woman had already made a six-hour journey to the site and spent the night on the mountainside to honor her daughter, one of 16 schoolchildren and two teachers from a German high school killed in the crash.

“At first, I did not think I would ever fly again,” she said, asking not to be named.

Back in her hometown of Haltern am See, tearful friends and classmates from the school held a minute’s silence in the town square on Thursday.

“You are not alone with your pain,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote in a letter to the pupils’ parents on the anniversary.

Lubitz was allowed to continue flying despite having been seen by doctors dozens of times in the years preceding the crash.

After the tragedy, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recommended that airlines ensure at least two crew members, including at least one qualified pilot, are in the cockpit at all times.

Top managers of Lufthansa — the parent company of the lowcost Germanwings airline — arrived in Le Vernet to take part in the commemoration ceremony.

The company has denied any wrongdoing but is facing a lawsuit in the United States from family members who argue Lubitz should not have been allowed to fly.

“We are here today to show our respect to the victims and show that we support them,” said Lufthansa Chairman Carsten Spohr.

“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.”

The ceremony began with the reading of the names of the 149 victims in front of a headstone erected in their memory, followed by a minute of silence at 0941 GMT, the exact time of the crash.

A wreath was due to be laid at the local cemetery where the remains of unidentified body parts were buried.

“The families do not wish for their pain to be filmed,” said local French official Bernard Guerin.

Lubitz’s family did not take part.

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.

The private ceremony comes after anniversary vigils were also held in Spain and Germany, home to most of those killed in the crash.

In Haltern am See, pictures of the victims hang at the entrance of the Josef Koenig high school. There is a plaque in the school’s courtyard, and a room where students can sit in silence to remember their friends.

“In the beginning, I did not think I would survive the death of my child,” Steffi Assmann told a local newspaper, speaking of her 15-year-old daughter, Linda.

She placed a candle at the grave of her daughter with the inscription “365 days without you.”