Hundreds gather near Germanwings crash site to mark anniversary
Around 600 people gathered in a tiny village in the French Alps on Thursday to mark one year since their loved ones died when a Germanwings co-pilot deliberately crashed his plane into the mountainside.
The private ceremony began around 0930 GMT in the village of Le Vernet, after which about 300 of them made a pilgrimage to the remote crash site at an altitude of some 1,500 metres (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 honour 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.
- 'Not the day for legal issues' -
Investigators found that Lubitz had a history of depression and suicidal tendencies and the case has raised questions about medical checks faced by pilots as well as doctor-patient confidentiality.
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."
- '365 days without you' -
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".
© 2016 AFP