In a Rhineland town, police went from door to door to break news to relatives

Germany
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The Independent Online

They were a group of a dozen old friends from Mönchengladbach who would get together once or twice a year. The six couples booked what was to be the holiday of a lifetime this year, beginning in Paris with a supersonic flight to New York on board Concorde.

They were a group of a dozen old friends from Mönchengladbach who would get together once or twice a year. The six couples booked what was to be the holiday of a lifetime this year, beginning in Paris with a supersonic flight to New York on board Concorde.

Their prosperous Rhineland hometown, best known to the world for its football team, was in shock and mourning yesterday for the friends who perished minutes after Concorde left the runway at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

The members of the Mönchengladbach group were not big names or celebrities, but many would have been well known to locals. The owner of a big furniture store, Werner Tellmann, 69, and his wife, Margarete, 66; Harald Ruch, 45, who owned a building cleaning company and security service, and his wife, aged 46; and the head of a business school, Kurt Kahle, 51, his wife, aged 37, and the couple's son, Michael, eight.

A small sign hung on the door of Mr Tellmann's store: "Our shop is closed for family reasons."

Police in Mönchengladbach, accompanied by psychologists, went about the thankless task of visiting the homes of those believed to have booked to travel on the doomed Concorde.

"It wasn't easy. We don't live in a really big city," said a police spokesman, Peter Spiertz. "Some of our colleagues had acquaintances among the victims." Although many relatives had been forewarned by television news, said Mr Spiertz, "there is always the hope that there may have been a rebooking".

At the city's Clemens travel agency, where 17 victims, 13 local people and four from neighbouring towns had booked their holiday, the mood was "grim," said Albert Künzel a member of staff.

Christian Stattrop, the manager, spent most of Tuesday night helping police go through lists of bookings. He had known most of the victims personally. "The Concorde was supposed to be a special treat," he said. "When we found out about the crash, we were shocked and speechless."

Even the city's mayor was personally affected by the disaster. "This is a huge blow for me, because I knew many who were aboard the Concorde," said Monika Bartsch. An employee in her office had booked the cruise but ended up taking a regular Lufthansa flight to New York because of Concorde's expense. "It was a huge relief when he called and said, 'I'm alive'," said Ms Bartsch.

Across Germany, there were similar scenes of mourning. Up to 42 of the victims are thought to have come from North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous state. The interior ministry in Düsseldorf said that it had a list of travellers booked on the trip, including 19 women, 22 men and a boy, Michael Kahle.

BMW in Munich confirmed that Christian Eich, 57, an "esteemed" engineer who ran the company's museum, his wife and two children, aged eight and 10, and his wife's parents were among the dead.

In many states, flags were at half-mast. Kurt Biedenkopf, the president of the Federal Council, said: "The start of a holiday brought death and destruction and, for the relatives and friends of the dead, a terrible loss."

Peter Deilmann, whose company had chartered the Concorde and owns the cruise ship docked in New York, offered the 410 other tour members a full refund if they wished to cancel their trip.

For one of the largest luxury cruise companies - with 45,000 passengers and £66m turnover annually - the disaster is particularly harsh. "We are still in shock," said Mr Deilmann. "It is beyond my capacity to find words." A memorial service will be held today in Neustadt, where the company is based.

At an ecumenical memorial service yesterday in Hanover on the site of Expo 2000, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said: "Germany is shocked, Germany is speechless. Our respect goes to the deceased, our sympathy to the relatives."

Mr Schröder said that condolences had arrived from around the world, especially from France. Both President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had called him immediately after the accident.

Before the last cabinet meeting ahead of the summer recess, the Agriculture Minister, Karl-Heinz Funke, tearfully revealed that the daughter of good friend had been a stewardess aboard the plane.

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