A French prosecutor on Thursday formally opened a criminal inquiry into the crash of a Germanwings jetliner.
A panel of judges has been appointed to investigate whether the airline or any individuals should bear responsibility for failing to adequately monitor the psychological health of the plane’s co-pilot, who is believed to have deliberately crashed the plane.
Brice Robin, the public prosecutor from the southern city of Marseille, who is in charge of the case, announced the news after meeting with about 250 relatives of the crash victims.
Robin also disclosed new details about the medical record of the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, 27, who crashed the plane into a mountainside in the French Alps on March 24th after locking the captain out of the cockpit, killing himself and all 149 others aboard.
The plane, an Airbus A320, was travelling to Dusseldorf, Germany, from Barcelona, Spain.
Robin said a panel of three investigative judges would open an inquiry within the next week against “unknown parties” for involuntary homicide.
Robin said the investigation had uncovered evidence that Lubitz saw 41 doctors during the five years preceding the crash. In the month before, he was seen by at least seven, including three psychiatrists and three ophthalmologists.
According to the doctors, Lubitz complained that his vision was seriously impaired and that he was having difficulties sleeping, some nights sleeping only two hours.
Robin said Lubitz was prescribed antidepressants, but reported in an email to one doctor that they did not seem to be improving his sleep problems.
Doctors at the university hospital in Dusseldorf, where Lubitz lived, found “no organic cause” for his vision problems, Robin said.
The meeting Thursday came just days after the first victims’ remains were returned to their families. The coffins of 44 of the flight’s 72 German victims, including a group of 16 high school students, arrived in Dusseldorf late Tuesday and were claimed by relatives on Wednesday.
Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, said it was making preparations to repatriate a large number of the flight's 50 Spanish victims early next week, while the remaining transfers were expected to be completed by late June.
Families and victims’ groups welcomed the prosecutor’s decision to pursue the criminal inquiry and expressed hope that it would eventually shed a definitive light on the circumstances that contributed to the crash.
"France is clearly taking things in hand to pursue this investigation," said Stephane Gicquel, secretary general of a French association that represents the families of accident victims.
Robert Tansill Oliver, a retired American teacher living in Barcelona who lost his 37-year-old son, Robert Oliver Calvo, said he was eager for the truth to be revealed.
“There has to be a complete investigation,” said Tansill Oliver, 73. “How is it possible that they would not know about his mental or moral situation?” he said of Lubitz. “I find it incredible that there are companies with such international prestige that have employees in such a deplorable situation.”
German prosecutors have said Lubitz had a history of depression, and medical records obtained by regulators in the United States indicate that he suffered a severe depressive episode in 2009 that led him to withdraw from Lufthansa's elite flight-training school for 11 months for treatment.
Lufthansa has admitted that Lubitz informed the company of his illness at that time, but he was reinstated after a company flight doctor found him fit to return to the cockpit, and he was ultimately hired by Germanwings in 2013.
Strict privacy laws in Germany have frustrated efforts to understand more about how and when Lubitz’s psychological problems resurfaced and why his increasingly troubled behaviour in the months before the crash raised no alarms at Germanwings or at Lufthansa.
According to Robin, some of the doctors who had seen Lubitz in the weeks leading up to the crash had judged him unstable and psychologically unfit to fly, but feared legal repercussions if they reported their concerns to the airline or German regulators.
“Unfortunately that information was not reported because of medical secrecy requirements,” Robin said. France is one of a handful of countries that routinely open criminal investigations in air accidents, regardless of whether there is clear evidence of harmful intent or negligence. Such investigations typically target the airline, but they can include individuals as well.
The inquiries, similar to a grand jury investigation in the United States, often take several years, and do not always result in indictments. Many cases that do go to trial do not result in convictions.