HALTERN, Germany — What should have been a happy homecoming for teens returning from a trip abroad turned into a nightmare Tuesday as a community in northern Germany learned 16 of its high schoolers were aboard a flight that crashed into the French Alps.
The 10th-grade students and two of their teachers from the Joseph-Konig high school in Haltern were flying back from Barcelona to Dusseldorf on Germanwings Flight 4U 9525 after completing an exchange program.
About 100 people gathered at an impromptu memorial outside the school, which is about 40 miles from Dusseldorf, after news broke that the flight had crashed.
Stunned students hugged each other and placed candles on a table outside the school, while others lay tributes on stairs leading up to its main entrance.
"It was crazy," a local 11th grader told NBC News of learning that the plane had gone down while en route to Dusseldorf. "Many [peopled] started crying and many were sad."
Haltern Mayor Bodo Klimpel's voice broke over what he described as "the darkest day in the history of the city."
"We have to expect the worst," he said.
Relatives of the missing were being treated by specialists and psychologists, Klimpel said, and while the school would be open on Wednesday it would not hold regular classes.
"We are receiving excellent assistance from all sides," he said, adding that churches had opened their doors to mourners immediately after news of the tragedy emerged.
F. Brinley Bruton contributed reporting to this article, which first appeared on NBCNews.com.