HALTERN AM SEE, Germany — In this town of some 37,000 people, small enough for everyone to know someone who lost a daughter, grandson, niece or neighbor in the Germanwings crash on March 24, the procession of white hearses on Wednesday signaled a beginning and an end.
It was the beginning of formal mourning and the burials of 16 teenagers from here whose language exchange program in Spain ended in tragedy when a Germanwings co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately steered their flight — an Airbus A320 headed to Düsseldorf, Germany, from Barcelona, Spain — into a mountainside in France.
“The mourning has brought the town together, and this is a day that brings back all of the emotion,” said Bodo Klimpel, the mayor of Haltern am See. He accompanied the parents of the students to Düsseldorf Airport to claim the remains of their children, among the first 44 of the 150 victims to be repatriated.
It was also an end to the waiting for the arrival of the 10th graders, back from a journey that began with hopes and excitement and ended in a shower of white roses and tears as the hearses moved slowly past hundreds of students, parents and townspeople who lined the street in front of the high school, Joseph-König-Gymnasium.
“There is a certain relief that the families, after waiting so long, now have their children back and are able to lay them to rest,” Mr. Klimpel said.
Over the next two weeks, the families here will bury their dead in private ceremonies. After weeks of grappling with the attention of the news media from around the world, many in this town, some 50 miles from Düsseldorf, are ready to return to normal.
Perhaps that begins for some on Friday with the start of the Schützenfest, a traditional festival of local costumes, beer tents and brass-band music, hosted every other year by the local rifle club, or Schützenverein. Axel Schmäing, the club’s president, said the festivities would go on, but in a subdued fashion out of respect for those still mourning.
The opening fireworks and street dance have been canceled. Parades through the city usually intended to draw people to the fairgrounds have been scratched, as well. But the beer tents will go up as usual. “Anyone who wants to come dance with us is welcome,” he said.
“There are people who will be going to a funeral one day and will celebrate with us the next day,” Mr. Schmäing said. “Everyone has to decide for themselves.”
A Lufthansa cargo plane carrying the coffins of many of the Germanwings victims landed late Tuesday at Düsseldorf Airport from Marseille, France, where investigators have spent the past 11 weeks sifting through evidence recovered from the crash site in the French Alps.
Many people who gathered Wednesday in front of the school clutched candles and held flowers aloft in silent tribute as the white cars passed, each carrying a coffin with a child’s remains.
Hours before the hearses arrived, a woman who gave her name only as Kerstin, “a fellow mama,” scrambled to organize the flowers and candles.
“It should look nice when the children finally come home,” she said, as she begged bystanders to help keep the candles lit in the breeze. She said that she had lost a neighbor and that her 18-year-old daughter, whom she said had a disability, was struggling with the tragedy.
The 16 high school students were among the first of the 72 Germans killed in the crash to be repatriated. Along with two teachers, the students had been on their way home from an exchange with a partner school near Barcelona.
Altogether, the 150 victims were from at least 18 countries, with several holding dual passports.
Heinz Joachim Schöttes, a spokesman for Germanwings, said that all the crew members, except Mr. Lubitz, were among those repatriated on Wednesday. Mr. Lubitz’s family had arranged for his remains to be returned separately, he said.
After a brief ceremony in a hangar at the airport, when the families had time alone with the coffins, each marked with a photograph, they departed for their home cities. Most of the Haltern families participated in the procession along the freeway, the passage cleared by police escort.
Elmar Giemulla, a lawyer who is representing many of the victims’ families, including those from Haltern, said the repatriation was an important psychological step.
“For a lot of these people, they still have the last image in their mind of their children waving goodbye from the airport” on their way to Spain, Mr. Giemulla said. “This is why getting back the remains is so important. Now they see the coffins and they know their children are inside. They are confronted with reality.”
After the final hearse rounded the corner beyond the school, sobs could be heard as parents comforted their children and small groups of teens supported one another in tightly wound hugs.
Many brought roses and placed them before a row of 18 saplings planted in memory of the classmates and teachers lost in the crash. A plaque bearing their names will also be added to the memorial, said Ulrich Wessel, the school principal.
Mr. Klimpel said the city was planning a separate memorial at the town’s main cemetery in the fall. Some students have also been expressing their grief on a German memorial website.
“You were such a great friend! You were always so happy, no matter how much the others annoyed you,” one person, who gave her name only as Melina, wrote to her friend Elena Bless.
Annette and Martin Bless, the parents of Elena, who died a day before her 16th birthday, have set up a foundation in their daughter’s memory with the aim of helping other students take part in language exchange programs.
“According to Elena’s wishes, the foundation shall support other pupils participating in school exchange programs and attending work placements abroad,” the foundation’s website says.
Lufthansa said the remains of the other victims would be repatriated for burial soon, with many of the Spanish victims to be returned early next week.
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