We have breakfast with Christa and Alexander. I´m nervous.
Around 8:00 AM we board the waiting bus for Le Vernet, where the French gendarmerie give us a motorcycle escort, blue lights flashing. They clear the way and create a “protection zone” from journalists and other hindrances. Just before our arrival in Le Vernet we are told that from here on in, members of the media could be lurking by the side of the road. We close the curtains quickly as we have no interest in becoming fodder for the press, TV, etc. After a 3-hour drive we reach our destination.
We are the only relatives there. The local authorities greet us with a brief speech.
They stand in a row: the mayors of Le Vernet and Prads-Haute-Bléone (the communities closest to the crash site), the head of the French rescue team and other officials. One by one they shake our hands, introduce themselves by name and job title, offer their condolences. Although I don´t understand everything they are saying I feel their sympathy as well as their shock over what´s happened.
I thank them in French for their warm welcome and their efforts in the rescue work, which must have taken an enormous psychological toll on them. The head of the rescue team replies in a strong voice: “C’est mon travail, Madame.” (“That´s my job.”)
A memorial to the victims comes into view, which has been hastily erected. Uniformed personnel hold the flags of both countries stretched taut behind it. We lay a bouquet of flowers with a picture of Jens at its base. Tears flow, and not only ours. The Japanese plant incense sticks in the ground. They pray. We stand in silence for many minutes.
The mayor of Le Vernet, Monsieur Balique, beckons us away from the group. He shows us the snow-covered peak, pointing out the exact ridge where the crash occurred. I understand his French fairly well. One of the rescue workers (a German?) translates so that we get everything. He says that apparently no one in the community heard the impact of the airbus against the rocks. No bang, no explosion. No one saw the fireball either. The locals are shocked at the disaster which happened at their doorstep.
Monsieur Balique invites us to return. The countryside is wonderful. The trees are a burst of colour in autumn, we can hike in the mountains, he would hire an Alpine guide for us. He sighs. Despite the fantastic scenery, this region and its residents will forever be associated with the disaster.
He tells us that a road leading directly to the crash site will be built and accessible to everyone and should be finished in May.
They invite us to have something to eat but unfortunately the Japanese want to leave. The French kiss us goodbye on the cheek in their typical fashion.
As we are boarding the bus I see a roadblock which has been put up to keep the journalists, photographers and camera operators at bay. Large vehicles also form a wall between us and the media to make it more difficult for them to catch sight of us. The vehicles are deliberately parked in order to shield the families so no one can photograph our sad faces. (Hans would later tell us that a few photographers had built a raised platform so they could see over the roadblock. How can people be so thoughtless!?)
The next stop is in Seyne-les-Alpes, where many people greet us. A young woman comes up to us. She works for the German consulate in Marseille and is to be our translator. She says to me, “We still need a saliva sample.”
“The criminal investigators in Düsseldorf already have one.”
“Yes, I know, but they do things a little differently here.”
“And from my husband?”
He´s standing beside me, curious.
She a little evasive. “Well, but they have everything.”
“Hmm?” (Later it dawns on me that they want to check whether the father really is the biological father.)
She accompanies me into a tent. The Frenchman sitting across from me explains the procedure in detail. I will take the saliva sample myself, place it as instructed in the package provided, and seal it. The procedure will be closely monitored. I will then be asked to take a seat at a neighbouring table. I answer some more questions. There is a problem with the spelling of our surname, as the official has never seen the German letter “ß” before and can´t find it on his keyboard. He doesn´t know what to do. I say “double s.” The woman from the consulate and the official agree on the spelling. I´m glad she´s here with me. My nerves are shot. It´s all too much.
There is a service for us and the Japanese in French. They seem to understand as little as we do.
We lay more flowers and write in the book provided.
I make some conversation with Nakamura-san, the widow, who speaks some English. I learn that she now lives alone with her children in Düsseldorf. She looks at me sorrowfully. “It’s so horrible, that crash …”
I can only manage a “Yes.”
© Brigitte Voß / Translation: Ellen Rosenbaum
(To be continued)