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Grief-stricken Germanwings families plan US lawsuit

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A beacon marks the spot where the Germanwings flight came to a tragic end. Photo: AFP
09:35 CET+01:00
The grief of families who lost loved ones when a suicidal co-pilot crashed a Germanwings plane into the French Alps has long turned to anger, a year after the tragedy that claimed 150 lives.

The grief of families who lost loved ones when a suicidal co-pilot crashed a Germanwings plane into the French Alps has long turned to anger, a year after the tragedy that claimed 150 lives.

Many relatives have banded together with plans to take the airline's parent company Lufthansa to court in the United States, arguing that the depressive 27-year-old Andreas Lubitz should never have been allowed to fly a plane.

"We are still infinitely sad about the death of our daughter," said Annette Bless, whose child Elena died in the tragedy last March 24, a day before she would have turned 16.

"The days before the sad anniversary of this terrible tragedy are particularly difficult for all the victims' families," Bless, a 52-year-old language teacher, told AFP.

Elena was one of 16 students and two teachers from a high school in the western German town of Haltern am See who were among those killed.

The teenagers and staff were seated near the rear of the Airbus A320 after a week-long school exchange in Spain, headed back from Barcelona and bound for Duesseldorf airport.

But as flight 4U 9525 cruised above France, Lubitz took the fateful decision that sealed the fate of everyone aboard.

When the pilot, Captain Patrick Sondenheimer, left the cockpit for a bathroom break, Lubitz locked the door behind him and set the autopilot into a steady descend.

In the flight's last minutes, the voice recorder only picks up Lubitz's breathing as he ignores calls from air traffic controllers while the screaming pilot tries to pry open the door with a crowbar.

The pinging of an alarm signal fills the cockpit as passengers' screams can be heard from the cabin, before the aircraft ploughs into the snow-capped mountain.

The crash killed all 144 passengers and six crew -- a group of people from 20 countries, among them 72 Germans and 50 Spaniards.

For the relatives, the initial shock at learning of the loss of their loved ones was quickly compounded by the reason behind the tragedy.

This month, the French Bureau of Investigations and Analysis again confirmed Lubitz had suffered from a serious depressive disorder.

The French investigators called for "clearer rules" on the lifting of medical confidentiality if pilots show signs of psychological problems.

Bild newspaper and other media have reported that Lubitz had suffered recurrent episodes of anxiety and depression, fears of going blind and thoughts of suicide. He had undergone psychotherapy and been prescribed antidepressants.

Anger has turned against Germanwings and Lufthansa, Europe's biggest airline. One victim's father bitterly remarked that Lubitz should never even have been allowed to drive a bus.

"People are more desperate than ever", said aviation lawyer Elmar Giemulla, who is representing more than 70 families.

The relatives are demanding compensation and "do not have the impression that Lufthansa is working actively toward a solution," he told AFP.

Lufthansa initially paid €50,000 ($56,000) per victim and offered €25,000 more to each family, plus €10,000 to each immediate relative including parents, children and spouses.

In July, most relatives refused the airline's compensation offer as paltry and "insulting".

Lufthansa has argued it is seeking a "speedy and fair settlement" of all justified damages claims in Germany and abroad.

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This month the lawyers said they would file a class action suit in the United States, where Lufthansa trains its pilots in a flying school near Phoenix, Arizona -- and where damages claims often run into the millions.

It was in the flight academy where "the drama began", charged Giemulla's partner Wellens, arguing that Lubitz had already suffered psychological problems and should never have been trained to fly a plane.

According to Giemulla, the BEA report "confirmed the negligence of Lufthansa".

"We believe that it's reasonable Lufthansa must pay," Bless told national news agency DPA. "But we didn't want to gain personal advantage. We wanted to do something in Elena's memory."

Bless and her husband have used the initial Lufthansa payout to set up the Elena Bless Foundation, which supports student exchanges abroad.

In their living room stands a candle with a portrait of Elena, which she had sent her parents via WhatsApp days before her death. The parents visit her grave in the local cemetery every day.

"The only thing that interests me is that we find whoever is responsible," said Bless, "whoever failed to prevent Lubitz from flying a plane, and we would do everything to prevent a similar murder from happening again."

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