Grief shrouds German town as air crash victims are mourned

People gather for a mourning service in front of the church St Sixtus in Haltern am See, western Germany on April 1, 2015, from where some of the Germanwings plane crash victims came. The small German town of Haltern am See on Wednesday held an emoti
People gather for a mourning service in front of the church St Sixtus in Haltern am See, western Germany on April 1, 2015, from where some of the Germanwings plane crash victims came. The small German town of Haltern am See on Wednesday held an emotional memorial service for the 16 pupils and two teachers from a local school who were killed in the French Alps air disaster. -- PHOTO: AFP

HALTERN, Germany (AFP) - The small German town of Haltern am See on Wednesday held an emotional memorial service for the 16 pupils and two teachers from a local school who were killed in the French Alps air disaster.

Flags fluttered at half-mast outside the church where hundreds of candles were lit for the ceremony.

The small northwestern town has been all but paralysed with shock and grief, local officials say, after the brutal loss of so many young lives last week.

A steady flow of people signed a condolence book at the central St Sixte Church where an ecumenical religious service was held to remember the victims, who attended a school that has become a symbol of national mourning.

"Paula, we miss you. Rest in Peace," read one message in rounded, childlike handwriting with a heart.

"The inconceivable has happened," the town's mayor Bodo Klimpel said. Some 650 people, many dressed in black, packed the church while about 500 more braved icy winds to follow the proceedings via loudspeakers placed outside.

Carsten Spohr and Thomas Winkelmann, the respective heads of Lufthansa and Germanwings, also turned up for the service after paying their respects Wednesday morning near the crash site in France.

Among the 150 people who died when the Germanwings jetliner crashed were 14 girls and two boys aged 15 and 16 and their two teachers from the Joseph Koenig Gymnasium who were returning from an exchange trip to Spain.

A total of 72 Germans were onboard the flight headed from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.

Uppermost in people's minds in Haltern was showing solidarity with the victims' families.

Eric Orban and Jakow Styeklov, aged 18 and 17, travelled from the city of Duesseldorf, an hour away, to "grieve and say goodbye".

The incomprehension at the loss of life was intensified by investigators' suspicions that the plane's co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately steered it into the mountain.

"As a Christian, I cannot forgive him,"said Markus Delitsch, 52, lighting a candle.

His son attends the same school as those who died, and since the crash he and his family have held conversations at home to try to take in what happened, he said.

'BLACKEST DAYS'

"It's really as if the town is paralysed," Georg Bockey, a spokesman for the town hall, told AFP.

"Everyone knows someone, who knows someone close to the victims," he said, adding the alleged actions of the 27-year-old German co-pilot, who had suffered from severe depression in the past, made it "still harder to accept".

Since the crash, Haltern town authorities have halted meetings, sports clubs have postponed matches and a local celebration due to have been attended by about 1,000 people was called off.

Haltern, which lies in a traditional mining region, is experiencing "its blackest days since World War II" when it was heavily bombed, Bockey said sorrowfully.

Most shops and businesses in the heart of the redbricked town display small notices in their windows remembering the victims.

Despite the start of the Easter holidays, the high school has remained open this week for families and pupils to go in; help is on hand from special counsellors.

Its steps are covered in a sea of candles, wreaths and bouquets of flowers alongside pictures of the young victims and messages of sympathy and solidarity.

"We will never forget you," read one.

The distress and anger are palpable, with many inhabitants refusing to answer reporters' questions.

"Warum? Pourquoi? Porque?" a wooden plaque simply asked.

Bockey said that everyone in the town was hoping the wounds would heal and voiced hopes that the memorial service, due to be attended by the mayor, would be key towards helping achieve this.

After that, "we must still bury the victims," Bockey said. The town's grief will linger "for years", he added.