HALTERN, Germany (AP) — Hundreds of people lined the streets to pay solemn respect to 16 high school students and two teachers killed in the Germanwings plane crash, as a convoy of hearses brought their remains home for burial Wednesday.
Authorities blame the co-pilot of Flight 9525 for deliberately slamming the plane into the French Alps on March 24, killing all 150 people onboard.
Lufthansa had flown the remains of the first 44 victims to Duesseldorf late Tuesday. Parents and relatives of the students viewed the coffins inside an airport hangar before bringing their loved ones home to Haltern, 75 kilometers (46 miles) to the northeast.
The slow-moving convoy of hearses — white ones for the students, black ones for the teachers — was accompanied by a police motorcade and a bus carrying further relatives.
"After so many weeks of waiting, particularly for the relatives, we are happy that we have them back home in our town again," Haltern Mayor Bodo Klimpel said. "It was very moving, when we drove from the motorway into the town and the residents shared the feelings and lined the streets."
Onlookers cried and hugged as the convoy passed the Joseph-Koenig-Gymnasium where the teens had gone to school.
Principal Ulrich Wessel said the tragedy had struck the whole community.
"This entire event is a tragedy, especially for the parents, but we, too, lost our students and colleagues," he said.
Two of the teachers who had accompanied the students on a school exchange trip to Spain were also killed in the crash.
"It's especially difficult for the students of grade 10," Wessel said. "There used to be 150 students, now they are only 134 ... Many lost their best friends."
The group was flying back from Barcelona to Duesseldorf when co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked the captain out of the cockpit and slammed the plane against a mountainside, according to authorities.
Earlier, students in Haltern had placed white roses for their dead friends on the sidewalk next to the school. They also lit white candles on the school yard, where 18 trees were recently planted as a memorial to the deceased.
Wessel said psychologists had talked to the students earlier this week and that all students would be allowed to attend their schoolmates' funerals. The first burials will be held Friday, the last ones at the end of the month. One teen won't be buried in Haltern.
Wessel said the long wait that the families had had to endure before bringing their children home had been particularly difficult.
"This time has ended today but at the same time today once more has been very dreadful, very brutal for the parents," he said.
"On Friday, the funerals will start over a period of two weeks, and this is another dreadful moment, to have to say goodbye to the children. Therefore this day today was cruel on the one side, but on the other hand it was important."
A spokeswoman for Germanwings said the remains of the other victims to their home countries had also begun and would likely be finished by the end of June.
Lufthansa spokesman Andreas Bartels said, in addition to individual returns, a special flight Monday would return remains of more than 30 Spanish victims to Barcelona from Marseille.
In addition to the 72 German victims, 47 Spaniards, another four people who were dual citizens with a Spanish passport, and citizens of more than a dozen other countries were killed in the crash.
Kirsten Grieshaber reported from Berlin. Dorothee Thiesing contributed from Haltern.