Cathedral service to mourn victims from Germanwings crash
Hundreds of bereaved relatives gathered in Germany Friday for a memorial service for the victims of last month's Germanwings crash, blamed on a depressed co-pilot believed to have deliberately steered the plane into a mountain.
Flags were flying at half-mast nationwide for the 150 dead as political and religious leaders were to join mourners at a midday (1000 GMT) service at Cologne's historic cathedral.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck will attend the ecumenical service in the western city along with Spain's Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz and French Transport Minister Alain Vidalies.
Lufthansa chief Carsten Spohr will also attend, as will three executives of its low-cost subsidiary Germanwings, Thomas Winkelmann, Axel Schmidt and Oliver Wagner, the company said.
About 1,500 guests are expected for the service, among them 500 relatives of the victims, in northern Europe's largest Gothic church, which will also be broadcast live on screens outside the cathedral and to viewers nationwide.
Ursula Mund, 53, said she would be among those watching on the large square in the city centre.
"Of course this is a special occasion. We have all talked a lot about what happened and are still baffled by it," she said.
"We are still saddened and I feel very moved today."
Michael Senker, 62, said he would follow the ceremony on television.
"It's important to me to watch because all of Germany has been particularly affected by this tragedy," he said.
"We all feel touched by this horrible catastrophe."
Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who had been diagnosed as suicidal in the past, is believed to have intentionally flown the plane into the mountainside after locking the pilot out of the cockpit.
He was receiving treatment from neurologists and psychiatrists who had signed him off sick from work a number of times, including the day of the crash.
Aviation industry doctors have since demanded that German pilots undergo more extensive medical checks, while several airlines worldwide have changed rules to require two crew in cockpits at all times.
Spohr, who is grappling with a heavy blow to the airline's image, asked Lufthansa pilots in attendance not to wear their uniforms to the ceremony out of respect for the victims.
- '150 victims' -
Mourners began leaving flowers and lit candles on the stairways leading to the cathedral, and outside the city's main railway station nearby.
A bouquet of a dozen white tulips left at the towering cathedral had a card bearing the message, "Depression is incalculable," referring to Lubitz's illness.
A white flag emblazoned with a black cross hung outside the cathedral, while in front of the altar 150 candles were set up, one for each of those killed.
The memorial service will be led by the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, and the head of the Protestant Church of Westphalia, Annette Kurschus.
Woelki urged compassion for all the dead, including Lubitz.
"There are 150 victims," he insisted.
The Germanwings Airbus 320 was en route from Barcelona to Duesseldorf when it crashed in the French Alps on March 24, killing everyone aboard, including 72 Germans and 50 Spaniards.
Germany was especially devastated by the loss of 16 students and two teachers from a high school in the small town of Haltern as they returned from a class trip to Spain.
Business executive Peter Eiglmeier said he had driven to Cologne from the northern city of Hamburg to take part in the public show of sympathy.
"I lost two children myself a few years ago. My thoughts go out to the parents of those kids on the plane," the 57-year-old told AFP, fighting back tears.
Loved ones of victims previously attended a memorial event near the disaster site, at the village of Le Vernet in the French Alps.
On April 13, the foreign ministers of Germany, Spain and France also paid tribute to the victims at Barcelona airport, where the passengers embarked.
Cologne Cathedral was constructed over more than six centuries between 1248 and 1880. Despite several hits, it survived Allied bombing that levelled much of Cologne in World War II. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
© 2015 AFP