German town mourns loss of 16 students, 2 teachers in plane crash

On a hand-painted sign on an outdoor pingpong table, a sign read in white letters: "Yesterday we were many; today we are alone."

HALTERN, Germany – Lara Beer waited at the train station, looking forward to seeing her best friend, returning from a week-long 10th-grade exchange trip to Spain.

The 14-year-old said the train came in as planned Tuesday afternoon, but her friend Paula wasn’t on it.

“I just went back home,” Beer told The Associated Press on Wednesday, wiping tears from beneath her red-framed glasses. “Then my parents told me Paula was dead.”

Beer’s friend was one of 16 students and two teachers from the main high school in the western German town of Haltern who were killed aboard the Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Duesseldorf that crashed Tuesday in France. A total of 67 Germans, many Spaniards, as well as people from Australia, Japan, Israel, Turkey, Denmark and the Netherlands are believed to be among the 150 who died.

The crash has hit Haltern hard. In the rural town amid fields about 80 kilometres northeast of Duesseldorf, it seems everyone knew someone who died aboard the aircraft.

“We are a town of 38,000,” Mayor Bodo Klimpel said on ARD television, adding that his son attends the same school as the students who died. “It’s only natural that you know some people personally.”

Classes were cancelled Wednesday but students were encouraged to come to the Joseph Koenig High School in any event, to be with classmates and talk with psychologists and other counsellors.

Police had erected a line outside the building to keep dozens of reporters and cameras away from the children as they hugged and wept at a makeshift memorial of candles and flowers at the entrance to the building.

“We’re here to help on a difficult day so that the people here in Haltern have the chance to mourn,” police spokeswoman Inge Such said.

A hand-painted sign leaned on an outdoor pingpong table read in white letters: “Yesterday we were many; today we are alone,” with 16 white crosses painted underneath the message.

Beer was one of a group that came from a neighbouring school to be with the Joseph Koenig students to try to come to grips with what had happened.

“We’re all talking with each other; the atmosphere is indescribable,” she said. “You just can’t believe that your own friend is gone.”