Families return to plane crash site in French Alps a year on

Six hundred people will gather in a tiny village in the French Alps Thursday to mark one year since their loved ones died when a Germanwings co-pilot deliberately crashed his plane into the mountainside.

Families return to plane crash site in French Alps a year on
Relatives of the victims of the ill-fated Germanwings flight have arrived in Le Vernet to mark one year since the crash. Photo: Lluis Gene/ AFP

After a ceremony in the village of Le Vernet, about 80 of them will make a grueling pilgrimage to the crash site at an altitude of some 1,500 metres (4,900 feet).

Aided by volunteer firefighters and mountain guides, they will walk a muddy, snow-covered mountain path, much of it carved out to allow emergency workers to access the site.

A red stake planted in the soil marks the exact site where the plane went down, killing all 150 people on board.

The ill-fated plane took off from Barcelona and was headed to Dusseldorf in Germany when German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, 27, drove it into the ground on March 24, 2015.

On Wednesday a young German woman had already made a six-hour journey to the site.

Her daughter was one of a group of high school students who were killed in the crash.

“At first, I did not think I would ever fly again,” she said, asking not to be named.

'Not the day for legal issues'

Investigations found that Lubitz had a history of depression and suicidal tendencies and the case has raised questions about medical checks faced by pilots as well as doctor-patient confidentiality.

Lubitz was allowed to continue flying despite having been seen by doctors dozens of times in the years preceding the crash.

After the tragedy, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recommended that airlines ensure at least two crew members, including at least one qualified pilot, are in the flight crew compartment at all times.

Top managers of Lufthansa — the parent company of the low-cost Germanwings airline — arrived in Le Vernet to take part in the commemoration ceremony.

The company — which has denied any wrongdoing — is facing a lawsuit in the United States from family members who argue Lubitz should not have been allowed to fly.

“We are here today to show our respect to the victims and show that we support them,” said Lufthansa chairman Carsten Spohr.

“Today is not the day to talk about legal issues, today we are just here, with 100 Lufthansa employees, to help the families and support them in their grief.”

The ceremony will begin with the reading of the names of the 149 victims in front of a headstone erected in their memory, with a minute of silence at 0941 GMT, the exact time of the crash.

A wreath will also be laid at the Vernet cemetery where the remains of unidentified body parts were buried.

(Andreas Lubitz. AFP)

No government officials will take part in what is expected to be completely private memorial.

“The families do not wish for their pain to be filmed,” said local French official Bernard Guerin.

The pilot's family will not be present.

Plans to take relatives to visit the crash site by minibus were called off because bad weather has made the forest road leading to it impassable.

The private ceremony comes after anniversary vigils were held in Spain and Germany, home to most of those killed in the crash.

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Probe into Germanwings crash finds suicidal pilot solely responsible

German prosecutors said on Monday that they had closed a criminal probe into the Germanwings plane crash in March 2015 after concluding that the suicidal co-pilot bore sole responsibility for the disaster that killed all on board.

Probe into Germanwings crash finds suicidal pilot solely responsible
Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. Photo: Facebook

The probe focused on whether any doctors who treated the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had been criminally negligent in not reporting him to authorities before the plane came down in France, killing 144 passengers and six crew, mostly from Spain and Germany.

“The investigation has shown no sufficient evidence of guilt by anyone still alive in connection with the Germanwings crash,” a spokesman for the Duesseldorf public prosecutor's office, Christoph Kumpa, told AFP.   

Lubitz, 27, deliberately flew the Germanwings plane into a French mountainside in a tragedy that raised questions about aviation safety and doctor-patient confidentiality.

Kumpa said the probe had determined that Lubitz's doctors knew he was “suffering psychologically” in the months before the disaster but that he had not been diagnosed as clinically depressed.

Rather, the investigators found, “the co-pilot did not tell the doctors treating him or anyone else in his personal life about his suicidal thoughts so that none of these people could have been expected to tell his employer or the authorities”.

The probe also concluded that Germanwings had “no knowledge of psychological ailments” suffered by Lubitz.    

French investigators have been carrying out their own manslaughter probe over the crash, and relatives of victims have filed a lawsuit against the Lufthansa-owned flight school that trained Lubitz.

The co-pilot was permitted to continue flying despite having been seen by doctors dozens of times in the years preceding the crash.    

Lubitz was terrified of losing his sight and consulted 41 different doctors in the previous five years, including psychiatrists as well as ear, throat and nose specialists.

Following the crash, the European Aviation Safety Agency recommended more medical testing for pilots, including more psychological tests and drug and alcohol screening.

Germany's doctors' association has criticised Germanwings parent company Lufthansa and aviation regulators for failing to keep Lubitz from flying, saying that medical controls focused largely on “physical findings and laboratory tests” but neglected psychological examinations.