World

Germanwings crash leaves town that lost 16 students in 'state of shock'

Sixteen students and two teachers from the German town of Haltern were on Germanwings Flight 4U9525 when it crashed in the French Alps. "This is pretty much the worst thing you can imagine," Mayor Bodo Klimpel said.

Students and teachers were returning from exchange program in Spain

A friend of the German students aboard the crashed plane wipes away tears during a mass in Llinars del Valles, near Barcelona. Sixteen students and two teachers died when a Germanwings flight crashed. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

Residents of the German town of Haltern were shocked to learn that 16 local high students and two teachers who had just spent a week on a Spanish exchange program were on Germanwings Flight 4U9525, which crashed Tuesday morning in the French Alps.

"This is pretty much the worst thing you can imagine," said a visibly shaken Bodo Klimpel, mayor of the town in western Germany.

Some hugged and cried in front of Joseph Koenig High School, where the 10th graders had studied, and put candles on its steps. Others changed their Facebook cover photos to black, with the simple message: "Haltern mourns; In memory of the victims of the March 24, 2015, plane crash."

"You can feel a state of shock everywhere," Klimpel said at a hastily called news conference at city hall. The town of 38,000 is about 80 kilometres northeast of the plane's destination of Duesseldorf.

Officials confirmed that the school group was among the 150 people on board the plane. The victims are believed to have included a total of 67 Germans, including an opera singer, many Spaniards, business travellers en route to a trade fair in Cologne and one person from the Netherlands.

The German students and their teachers spent a week in Llinars del Valles and were seen off at the town's train station for their early morning trip to the airport by their Spanish host families, said Pere Grive, the deputy mayor of the town of 9,000 about 45 km northeast of Barcelona.

Students gather at a memorial of flowers and candles in front of the Joseph-Koenig Secondary School in the German town of Haltern. (Sascha Schuermann/AFP/Getty Images)

German and Spanish students from the two towns have been doing such exchanges for at least 15 years and the Spanish students had spent time in Germany in December.

"We are completely shattered and the students are also devastated," Grive told The Associated Press.

In Haltern, the high school was going to be kept open Wednesday, but no classes were planned.

"There will be an opportunity for the students to talk about the terrible event," Klimpel said.

In Duesseldorf, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein opera house said bass baritone Oleg Bryjak was among the victims. He was returning from Barcelona, where he had sung Alberich in Richard Wagner's Siegfried at the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

"We have lost a great performer and a great person in Oleg Bryjak. We are stunned," director Christoph Meyer said.

In Spain, authorities were still trying to determine how many of their citizens were on board.

Business travellers included Carles Milla, the managing director of a small Spanish food machinery company, his office said, adding that he had been on his way to a food technology fair in Cologne. Two employees of Barcelona's trade fair organization were also on the flight.

Relatives can view crash site

At Barcelona airport, where the plane began its journey, psychologists helped grieving relatives who were quickly escorted to a secure area.

Catalonia's regional leader, Artur Mas, said the government would arrange transportation for families who want to view the crash site but did not say when the visit would take place.

At Barcelona airport, passenger Marcel Hemmeldr said felt "very strange" to check in for Germanwings' evening flight to Duesseldorf.

"The people were standing at the same place where we're standing now ... now they're not there anymore. So it's a strange feeling, a really strange feeling," he said. "I feel sorry for everybody in Germany. All the people there who have lost some family members."

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