LE VERNET, France (AP) — In a solemn day of remembrance, grieving families gathered on Thursday in a French Alpine village to pay homage to loved ones a year after the co-pilot of a Germanwings plane flew the passenger jet into a mountainside, killing all 150 people aboard.
Some 800 people were expected at the commemoration that started with a private ceremony and a minute of silence. Families had the option to visit the crash site on the mountain overlooking Le Vernet. A wreath-laying was to be the only public moment as families of victims — mostly German and Spanish — mark the grim day.
The flight was en route from Barcelona to Duesseldorf when co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, 27, locked the pilot out of the cockpit and thrust the aircraft into an accelerated dive. France's accident investigating body said in a report released this month that Lubitz's remains bore traces of anti-depressants and a sleeping medication.
"It happened on our mountains, and we have victims' families visiting us every week, families who come and pay tribute," said Le Vernet Mayor Francois Balique.
Villagers in Le Vernet and nearby Prads-Haute-Bleone have taken on the role of second family for many of the grieving.
"Today, this bond is still alive, this friendship between the families and ourselves, we want to make it last, it's very important for us. The role we set for ourselves is to accompany the families each time they come here, and comfort them as they mourn," said Prads-Haute-Bleone Mayor Bernard Bartolini.
Since the crash, parent company Lufthansa has replaced the Germanwings brand with the name Eurowings.
A first responder to the disaster, Sebastien Beaud of the High Mountain Gendarmerie Unit, said in an interview on the eve of the commemoration that it quickly became clear that finding survivors was an impossible task.
"There's smoke, flames, debris everywhere ... human remains" in small fragments, he said, recalling walking down the mountainside.
Some families preferred to stay away from organized memorials.
Juergen Fischenich, who lost his 33-year-old son Sven in the crash, said family and friends would mourn privately.
"We're not traveling to Le Vernet because we don't want to be among a mass of people when we're thinking about our son," Fischenich said in an email.
Sven Fischenich, an HP employee and volunteer fireman, had been traveling home to his wife and baby daughter.
In another commemoration, mourners gathered in front of a church in the German town of Haltern am See for a minute of silence. Two teachers and 16 students from the town's Joseph-Koenig high school died in the crash.
Town mayor Bodo Kimpel said the tragedy had brought people in the town closer together. "During this difficult time we found a common way to deal with this tragedy, the grief," he said in an interview.
Lufthansa denies wrongdoing, and has so far offered no compensation beyond what is legally required under German law, riling some victims' families.
Kerstin Sopke contributed from Haltern am See, Germany.