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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 which 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.

Leonie Kustermeier's cousin, 16-year-old Rabea Scheidler, was on the plane.

"I'm really shocked and I can't believe it right now," she told NBC News. "I still think she will come to school tomorrow."

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.

The mother of one 9th grader at the school told NBC News that the community is reeling and feels "empty."

"It hurts so much," she said.

IN-DEPTH

— Carlo Angerer, Andy Eckardt, Katy Tur and F. Brinley Bruton