Germanwings crash: Victims' relatives arrive at the crash site

Relatives had flown in from Dusseldorf and Barcelona

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The Independent Online

Some looked skyward, while others seemed only able to look to the floor as they walked with arms linked. But most fixed their eyes on the snow-capped Col de Mariaud - the forbidding Alpine peak behind which lay the remains of their loved ones and those of the man who seemingly killed them.

It was a pilgrimage of grief whose participants had set out this morning in the belief that the passengers on board flight 4U 9525 were most likely to have perished in a devastating accident.

Yet as their families arrived by afternoon in their hundreds in the village closest to the isolated mountain ravine where the Germanwings Airbus A320 was obliterated on Tuesday morning, they found themselves gazing from afar on a scene not only of appalling loss but also presumed mass murder.

The relatives had flown in from Dusseldorf and Barcelona - the arrival and departure points of the destroyed flight - and joined others converging from some of the 17 countries whose citizens - schoolchildren, infants, mothers and fathers - died as the passenger jet hit the ground at 500mph.


As they touched down on French soil they were informed in a private briefing by Brice Robin, the magistrate leading the investigation, that the figure of 150 passengers and crew who had died was now starkly divided: 149 victims and one presumed killer, the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who the evidence now showed had deliberately set 4U 9525 on its 18-minute descent to destruction.

And so it was while absorbing that appalling knowledge that the group of around 400 made their journey into the lower reaches of the French Alps to be near to their dead and at the same time be confronted by the ashen, rocky terrain dotted with snow which swallowed the A320 carrying them and turned it into metallic "confetti".

Jean Francois, one of the small army of volunteers from the local populace who had stepped forward to help with services from translation to food, shook his head in disbelief as the news of an apparent murder-suicide leaped ahead of the convoy and reached Le Vernet. He said: "To do such a thing is to me unthinkable. How much suffering can we ask these families to take? They must be numbed with anger."

The inhabitants of this wild, beautiful corner of France have reacted instinctively with humanity and warmth to the tragedy in their midst. The residents of Le Vernet, a village of precisely 150 souls where some heard the impact late on Tuesday morning, like many in the surrounding area offered their homes and holiday apartments to accommodate the families.

A makeshift chapel, bedecked with flowers and tributes offered by villagers, has been opened in an annexe to the Le Vernet's school and library, which abut a sweeping view onto the Col Mariaud.

Wreckage of the Airbus A320 (Reuters)

And as the families stepped down from the fleet of seven coaches that nosed their way along the rough track at the mountain's base, they were greeted by an honour guard of Gendarmes holding up the flags of the departed - confirmation in national colours of a disaster of international dimensions.

But the solemnity and the solidarity of the locals could only stand alongside the raw grief that was apparent as the column of the bereaved, flanked by carers in fluorescent tabards, walked to a meadow to be shown the point in the distance, hidden by a thicket of peaks, where the wreckage of so many lives was to be found.

A teenager held her arm around an older woman as they walked leaning into each other, as if one were holding the other upright. Ahead a single woman appeared to hold a handkerchief to her face as she rounded the corner to be confronted by the mountain. Later, a second smaller convoy appeared carrying the relatives of the flight crew. The family of Andreas Lubitz were absent.

Josephine Balique, a Le Vernet native who had travelled home from her studies in Aix en Provence to offer assistance, told The Independent: "It is important for us to be here for these families, to offer them what we can, to explain what we can. We have a responsibility towards them."

A few miles away in the next village of Seyne-les-Alpes, perhaps the heaviest and most vital part of that responsibility was beginning to be discharged as ambulances and refrigerated hearses every few hours left the ad-hoc marshalling yard of the crash operation carrying the remains of some of the victims flown in by the constant procession of helicopters that now echo around these valleys.

Flowers and lit candles are placed on the ground in Cologne Bonn airport (Reuters)

Their cargo are the pieces of a macabre jigsaw caused by the obliterating force of the impact suffered by 4U 9525. As one mountain guide who initially brought workers to the scene put it: "There are not whole bodies. There are only parts and they are small, the size of a laptop computer. It is beyond distressing to see what has been done to these fellow human beings."

It is from this starting point that the French authorities, helped by their German and Spanish opposites, must complete what is the first priority in the aftermath of the disaster - that of restoring to the dead their dignity and restoring their remains to those they have left behind.

A small army of specialists has been deployed to the crash site and the surrounding areas to use the full battery of forensic, scientific and anthropological tools available to identify each of the dead. In so doing, the task is to restore to the dead their dignity and to their families their mortal remains.

It is a process that will take weeks, if not months. But there can be no doubting of the sincerity with which places like Le Vernet are going about their unsought labour. Among the offers of help offered for the bereaved was that of a small girl who brought with her some cakes she had baked at home should any of those on board those coaches feel hungry.

It was probably a forlorn hope but as resident put it: "These families are surely facing unimaginable darkness. This place is now for them as well as and we can only hope what they suffer is eased in a small way by the solidarity of others."