Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

German Town Grieves For Residents Lost In French Alps Crash


The remains of the 150 passengers and crew who were on that Germanwings flight could take weeks to recover. That's only compounding the grief for many family members and friends. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson spent the day in the German town struggling to cope with the loss of sixteen 10th-graders and two teachers.


SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: One of the places the 38,000 residents of Haltern am See go to make sense of the tragedy is this Catholic church in the main market square. Every minute or so, someone arrives to pray and light a candle, scores of which already illuminate the main altar like a campfire. They, like others in this pretty lakeside town, are in some way linked to the teens and their teachers who were returning from a weeklong exchange visit to a partner school outside Barcelona.

(Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: I ask this taxi driver about his town's close-knit atmosphere. He confirms my observation. His niece was in the same class as the teens who were on the plane. She chose not to go on the field trip at the last minute because her horse was sick, but he says she lost her two best friends in the crash. Not far from the high school, Sarah Mende is walking her dog. The 18-year-old says one of her close friends died in the crash and her younger sister lost her teacher.

SARAH MENDE: Well, it's really hard for us right now 'cause we don't know how to feel, and you see those empty faces and all sad faces, and you don't even know what to say.

NELSON: She says it helps somewhat that area schools are providing grief counselors. Each school also memorialized those lost with a minute of silence earlier today.

MENDE: I would say it's kind of bittersweet though because all the supporters really - well, they try to help, but they don't really know how to. And we don't even know how to feel, so it's really hard for us to even say things.

NELSON: But as confused as residents are about how best to deal with their loss, they've made it clear they don't want the media interfering. Before yesterday, the only thing widely known about this 800-year-old town on the edge of western Germany's rust belt was that it was the birthplace of a couple of famous soccer players.

Only a few residents and officials here agreed to be interviewed by the hundreds of journalists who have descended on Haltern am See since the crash. Those who do talk, refuse to identify any of those who died. But the high school's visibly shaken principal, Ulrich Wessel, shares a few details about the two teachers who are lost. He spoke at a press conference.


ULRICH WESSEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: "It's difficult for me, in this situation, to tell you about these two young female colleagues," he says. "One just got married last October. The other was engaged. This shows how major life plans evaporate in an instant."

Hundreds of students placed flowers, candles and notes outside the high school to remember their lost classmates and teachers. A large cardboard sign describes their feelings. It says, yesterday we were many - today we are alone. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, in Haltern am See, Germany. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.