Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper (26 March 2015) about the plane crash in southern France.
Mr Steinmeier, Germany and Europe are in shock after the airline disaster in the French Alps. In this profound grief and dismay, what can be done to support and assist the friends and families?
The news of this disaster has left us all in a state of shock. We’re talking about immeasurable sorrow for people having to face terrible news at this time, learning that their loved ones, family members and friends, have lost their lives.
In such times of great sadness, we all need to stand together and give one another strength and sympathy. Thousands of people across the whole world have been sending messages of condolence, sharing in the pain and the sorrow of the families and remembering them in their prayers. We are all united in deep mourning at this difficult time.
You went to the crash site itself on Tuesday. What was the scene like that you found there?
It is a horrific scene of utter destruction, which cruelly dashes any hope that there might still be survivors. The scale and the violence of the crash is beyond imagining. All the greater is my respect for the tireless efforts of the French teams who are swiftly, professionally and very sensitively carrying out search and rescue operations and investigations in that extremely inaccessible mountain terrain.
Can we already say this definitely wasn’t terrorism?
It goes without saying that we are all, myself included, thinking about what could have caused this tragedy. It would be wrong, however, to speculate at this time. Intensive investigations are under way to establish exactly what happened; German experts are in close liaison with the French specialists to that end. What I can say is that we have found no evidence of terrorist activity.
Among those who lost their lives were 16 pupils and two teachers from Haltern in Westphalia, who had been visiting Spain on a school exchange. The mayor has called it the blackest day his town has known. Utter dismay and profound grief – how will the people of that town be able to deal with this trauma, especially the families and classmates of those 18 individuals?
It was infinitely sad to hear that there had been children and so many young people among those who lost their lives on board that plane. For a whole group of young people on a school exchange to be snatched from us so suddenly is incomprehensible, simply inconceivable.
This tragedy will remain a terrible and indelible moment in the lives of the people of Haltern, especially for those who have lost family members and classmates. The memory of it and the memory of the children taken from them will stay with them forever. My message to them is that our thoughts are with them in their pain. We will give them all the support we can in this dreadful situation.
You have set up a crisis unit and a telephone helpline. How is the emergency operation going? Is there any new information?
The crisis unit’s top priority is still to locate and inform the next of kin. The helpline had already received thousands of calls by the end of Wednesday. In cases where we have managed to find the next of kin, we try to get the sad news to them as soon as possible. The news of someone’s death is always delivered to their next of kin in person, so the crisis unit is collaborating closely with the Federal Criminal Police Office and the Länder police forces, which have specially trained staff to perform that difficult duty. We are working on the assumption that around half of the 150 victims were German nationals. In a few cases, we are still waiting for a person’s nationality to be confirmed. This is partly because the flight was operating entirely within the Schengen area and so did not require any passport checks. The crisis unit staff are working to establish certainty as quickly as they can.
What’s your impression of France’s crisis management, the search and rescue operation and cooperation with your counterparts in Paris and Madrid?
Cooperation with our French and Spanish friends is excellent and extremely professional. We could not wish for better support on the ground. The helpfulness and dedication of our French partners are overwhelming – both among those on site and in the government ministries and local authorities. The search and rescue teams have kept working in the extreme conditions up in the mountains, even at night. There is an enormous sense of shared grief, and all those involved are very supportive and sensitive with regard to those who have lost loved ones.
This interview was reproduced by kind permission of the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.