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Germany mourns country's largest loss of life in 15 years

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[FRANKFURT] Germany was in mourning on Wednesday after losing 67 citizens in the Germanwings crash in the French Alps, the largest loss of life for the country in a single incident in 15 years.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere ordered flags to fly at half-mast on federal buildings for the next three days, while Germanwings owner, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, held a minute of silence companywide at 10:53 am local time, the moment when contact was lost with the plane.

Bild Zeitung, the country's largest-circulation newspaper, summed up the country's grief with the banner headline: "All of Germany Under Shock." The loss of life was the greatest since 2000, when 97 Germans died in the Air France Concorde crash near Paris.

Chancellor Angela Merkel prepared to travel to the accident scene on Wednesday with Hannelore Kraft, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, the state where the plane was headed and many of the passengers lived. Germanwings Flight 9525, operated by the low-cost subsidiary of Deutsche Lufthansa AG, plunged into the mountainside Tuesday en route to Dusseldorf from Barcelona, likely killing all 150 on board.

Students returned to school on Wednesday in Haltern am See - the North Rhine-Westphalia town that lost 16 students and two teachers. The Joseph Koenig Gymnasium decided not to close to give students and teachers the opportunity to grieve together and consult counselors, said Florian Adamek, a spokesman for the city of 38,000 about 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Dusseldorf.

"This is the darkest day in the history of our city," Haltern am See Mayor Bodo Klimpel said during a Tuesday press conference, his eyes tearing up and his voice breaking. "The city is deeply affected, we can sense a state of shock everywhere. It's the worst imaginable."

Germanwings returned to near normal operations after cancelling several flights on Tuesday as staff mourned the loss of six colleagues who perished in the crash. While some Germanwings crews are still not flying, Lufthansa is using planes and crews from other airlines to operate some Germanwings flights, Florian Graenzdoerffer, a Lufthansa spokesman, said by phone.

Passengers at Dusseldorf airport have been placing, candles, letter and flowers at a make-shift memorial to the victims. "I'm sure that spot is being filled again," he said.

Two German opera singers, who had been performing at Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu in composer Richard Wagner's Siegfried, were also on the plane. The opera house plans to remember the performers with two minutes of silence on Wednesday night. Oleg Bryjak was a 54-year-old bass baritone singer who had been at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein since 1996. Contralto Maria Radner was on the flight with her husband and baby after spending a month in Barcelona.

At least one Bayer AG employee and the wife of another were on the flight, the Leverkusen, Germany-based pharmaceuticals company said in a statement on the website of its Spanish unit.

In Haltern am See, hundreds on Tuesday filed into the 19th century red-brick Saint Sixtus church, lighting candles and writing messages in condolence books as organ music played. Not far away, dozens of red and white candles covered the school's main entrance. The group of 10th graders had visited the IES Giola de Llinars del Valles school in the Catalan town of Llinars del Valles for a one-week language exchange.

Spain declared three days of mourning for crash victims. The government is working with Germanwings to determine the Spanish death toll from the downed plane, said Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria. As many as 45 people on board had Spanish last names, she said, without confirming they were citizens of the country.

Other nations with citizens on board the plane included the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia, Turkey, the UK, Argentina and Israel.

Lufthansa and Germanwings changed their logos on Twitter and Facebook to commemorate the victims. The German national soccer team will wear black armbands at Wednesday's game against Australia, the country's DFB soccer federation said on Twitter.

One of the German players, Benedikt Hoewedes, grew up in Haltern. Hoewedes, who was a member of the squad that won the World Cup in Brazil last year, expressed his condolences via Twitter. Writing that he still has many friends and relatives in Haltern, he said he was "incredibly sad."