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Tears as Germany mourns 16 teens killed in air crash

A sea of lit candles and flowers covered the front steps of a German school deep in mourning Wednesday after 16 of its students died in a plane disaster in the French Alps.

Bereaved pupils wept and hugged near the makeshift memorial of candles, some arranged in heart shapes, to share the pain of losing their friends in Tuesday’s tragedy.

“Yesterday we were many, today we are alone,” read a hand-painted sign at the school, decorated with 16 crosses — one for each of the victims, most of whom were around 15 years old.

The teenagers, 14 girls and two boys, were among at least 72 Germans who made up nearly half the disaster’s total death toll of 150.

The students and their two female teachers had been on a week-long exchange trip near Barcelona, paying a reciprocal visit after Spanish youngsters came in December to the northwestern town of Haltern.

Compounding the tragedy, it emerged that those killed had won the trip in a lottery of their classmates, reported local daily the Halterner Zeitung in its online edition.

“Life dreams were shattered from one minute to the next,” an ashen-faced headmaster Ulrich Wessel said during a televised press conference.

He said the students’ deaths left “a wound that will heal very slowly and leave deep scars”.

Across Germany flags are to fly at half-mast for three days to mourn the victims of what German airliner Lufthansa said was the “worst accident in German civil aviation”.

Condolence books were opened in Haltern’s town hall, Berlin’s Protestant Cathedral and at Duesseldorf airport, where the doomed jet had been due to land.

Staff of Lufthansa and its subsidiary Germanwings worldwide observed a minute’s silence, many weeping quietly, at 0953 GMT, the moment radio contact broke off with the jet on Tuesday.

At the same time on Thursday, all schools in Haltern’s state of North-Rhine Westphalia are set to follow suit with a minute’s silence.

– ‘Still traumatised’ –

At the school, the Joseph Koenig Gymnasium, red-eyed parents and students wept and comforted one another on a day of mourning, as all classes were cancelled and 50 counsellors were on hand to lend emotional support.

“There’s no force on Earth strong enough to take away the pain of losing a close family member or friend,” said state education minister Sylvia Loehrmann after paying an early-morning visit.

“We can only share it, and from that can come a small measure of consolation.”

The town of about 38,000 people in a traditional mining region is small enough for many people to be touched directly by the tragedy, said locals.

Town mayor Bodo Klimpel said that “right now it’s very, very difficult to imagine when things will return to normal. We are all still traumatised by what happened.

“My son goes to the same school, he’s one grade below those who died in yesterday’s accident and of course he knows them all,” he told news channel NTV.

Chancellor Angela Merkel called Klimpel to express her condolences and later joined the French and Spanish leaders near the crash site.

The dead included six crew and 144 passengers.

On Wednesday, a group of about 20 German students, who had also been on an exchange trip to the same town near Barcelona, arrived at the city’s airport under a police escort and were met by members of the Red Cross before boarding a flight to the northern German city of Hamburg.

“Some children didn’t want to take the plane” and were to return home by train, Marti Pujol, mayor of Llinars del Valles, said.

President Joachim Gauck was on his way back from Peru after cutting short a South America trip because of the tragedy.

Well-known Germans offered their condolences on social media, among them tennis star Boris Becker and cyclist Jens Voigt.

Google in Germany and Spain marked its front page with a black ribbon.

TV channels continuously broadcast scenes from Haltern, though police kept media and TV crews at a distance from the school.

“Today in the school, it is the time to share the sadness together … There is a lot of sadness,” said police spokeswoman Ramona Hoerst.