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11 weeks after Germanwings crash, victims' remains head home

It has taken a long time to return the remains in part because of errors on official death certificates that rendered them invalid.

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A cargo aircraft, top, with remains of several people who died in the Germanwings plane crash in France lands at an airport in Dusseldorf on Tuesday.

Michael Probst/AP

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After more than two months of waiting, families of the 150 people killed when a Germanwings plane smashed into the French Alps in March will finally start burying their loved ones as the airline's parent company begins sending home victims' remains.

Lufthansa sent coffins with the remains of 44 victims by cargo plane Tuesday night from Marseille, France, to Duesseldorf, Germany, where Germanwings flight 9525 from Barcelona was supposed to land March 24.

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Instead, authorities say, the co-pilot purposely slammed the plane into a mountainside.

"The families are in denial. They cannot and do not want to realize that their children are dead," said Elmar Giemulla, a lawyer for families of 34 of the victims. "It will be brutal when they see the coffins tomorrow, but it is necessary, because they need closure and that's only possible if they accept that their children are dead."

Mr. Giemulla's clients include relatives of 16 students from one high school in Haltern, Germany, who were on their way home from a school exchange program when they died.

"Now, if the coffins are returning, the parents will know: This is really a fact, it's not just news," he said.

An MD-11 jet carrying the coffins touched down in Duesseldorf as night fell on Tuesday, and parents and relatives will be allowed to visit the coffins inside a hangar on Wednesday. A convoy of hearses will then head for Haltern, passing Joseph-Koenig-Gymnasium, the school the teens attended.

Most of the families in Haltern and beyond have been trying to cope with their pain in private, and many of the burials expected in the German town and nearby villages over the next few days and weeks will be family affairs. Remains of the rest of the victims, who had 19 different nationalities, will be sent back over the coming weeks. Nearly half of the victims were German and 47 others were Spanish.

It has taken a long time to return the remains in part because of errors on official death certificates that rendered them invalid. There were also challenges finding and identifying the remains in the remote area where the crash happened because the plane was traveling so fast that its tail slammed into the mountainside a split second after the nose did, vaporizing much of the aircraft and its contents.

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Prosecutors in France and Germany believe Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed the Airbus A320. They say he had been hiding psychological problems from his employer.

The office of Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin, who is leading a French investigation into the crash, said he will meet with victims' relatives Thursday in Paris to go over the discovery of DNA evidence and explain the details of handing over remains.

Mr. Robin expects 300 to 400 people to attend the closed-door meeting.

The family of two Australian victims, Carol Friday and her son Greig, won't be there, said her brother, Malcolm Coram. Mr. Coram visited the crash site about a month ago, and told The Associated Press it was simply too far to return again so soon.

Coram said he wasn't sure when his sister's and nephew's remains will be returned to Australia, but he expects it will be sometime before August. He said family members have been happy with the way that Germanwings and authorities have communicated with them.

"We get treated very well," he said. "What's done is done for us – we just sort of want it to end."