Germanwings co-pilot feared going blind: Prosecutor

  • AP, Paris
  • Updated: Jun 12, 2015 03:55 IST

Fearing he was going blind, the co-pilot who slammed a Germanwings jet into the Alps took sick days at work, upped his dosage of an antidepressant, and reached out to doctors, but they didn't tell his employer they thought he was unfit to fly because of German privacy laws, a French prosecutor said Thursday.

Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin presented new details of his criminal investigation into the case after meeting in Paris with many grieving relatives of the 150 people who died on the Germanwings flight co-piloted by Andreas Lubitz.

The March 24 crash, blamed on Lubitz, has put a spotlight on possible mental health issues involving flight crews.

Robin announced he was handing over his initial inquiry to three investigating magistrates who will try to determine who, if anyone, can be brought to trial in an involuntary manslaughter case in which the main culprit died in the crash. The news came as families have just started to receive the remains of their loved ones for burials in the coming days and weeks.

The investigation so far "has enabled us to confirm without a shadow of a doubt ... Mr. Andreas Lubitz deliberately destroyed the plane and deliberately killed 150 people, including himself," Robin told reporters.

Investigators say Lubitz locked the pilot out of the cockpit and flew the plane into a French mountainside after having researched suicide methods and cockpit door rules and practiced an unusual descent.

In a new development, Robin said information from Lubitz's tablet PC showed he had also investigated vision problems, and "feared going blind," which would have ended the 27-year-old's aviation career.

Lubitz, who had a history of depression, had seven medical appointments in the month before the crash, including three with a psychiatrist, and had taken eight sick days off work, Robin said. Some of the doctors felt Lubitz was psychologically unstable, and some felt he was unfit to fly, but "unfortunately that information was not reported because of medical secrecy requirements," the prosecutor said.

Robin said that Lubitz sent an email to one doctor just two weeks before the crash, saying he had doubled his dose of an antidepressant he was taking in a failed attempt to end near-sleepless nights as a result of worries about his vision. Robin said it wasn't yet clear if the vision woes were real or imagined, but Lubitz clearly felt it was threatening his beloved career.

"He even said to some of those close to him that given this vision loss, life no longer had meaning," Robin said. Lubitz's girlfriend appeared to be aware of his vision woes, and his family to a lesser extent. Both she and his mother took him to some of his medical appointments, he added.

Robin's comments also exposed the long-term nature of Lubitz's troubles. He feared his vision troubles would spark a return of his depression that he once suffered, the prosecutor said. In the last five years, Robin said Lubitz consulted with 41 different doctors.

In a March 10 e-mail to a doctor, Lubitz had indicated he could only sleep two hours a night and wanted urgent help, Robin said. Lubitz specified he was taking Mirtazapine, an antidepressant, and had even doubled the dosage from 15 to 30 milligrams in a failed bid to improve his sleep, and his fear of going blind continued, the prosecutor added.

Investigators were going over Lubitz's remains to determine whether he had taken any medications the day of the flight.

Germanwings and parent company Lufthansa have said that Lubitz had passed all medical tests and was cleared by doctors as fit to fly. Robin said he had no evidence that the carrier knew of the co-pilot's alleged visual ailment.

In Germany, doctors risk prison if they disclose information about their patients to anyone unless there is evidence they intend to commit a serious crime or harm themselves. Lubitz had told his doctors not to share information among each other about his condition, Robin said.

Four days after the crash, German prosecutors said there was no evidence that Lubitz had any physical ailment affecting his sight. Robin said Lubitz had complained of seeing flashing lights but that there was no apparent "organic" reason for Lubitz's apparent vision troubles.

Families of the victims were focusing on the return of the remains and belongings of their loved ones, and possible redress. German lawyer Peter Kortas, whose firm represents relatives of 34 victims, said negotiations with Germanwings on compensation began several days ago.

"In this moment everything else is not as important as the fact that the bodies, (the) remains be returned to their families," Kortas said. "It's already more than two and a half months since the crash happened, so it's finally necessary to get to closure. "The loss of the relatives should be compensated with also a suitable amount of money," he added.

While Kortas said Thursday's meeting with the prosecutors was "informative and interesting," he regretted that some questions remained. Relatives were told what the procedure was for returning remains and personal belongings, but not all got an exact date for the handover of remains, and no timeframe was given for the return of the personal belongings.

Nearly half of the victims were German, 47 were Spanish and there were 17 nationalities among the rest.

Stephane Gicquel, who heads a French accident victims association and was at the families' meeting with Robin, said the relatives saw video reconstitutions of the last minute of the flight, with cockpit audio taken from the Airbus 320.

"So very concretely, the families had the proof of what happened by hearing the sound recordings, hearing the alarms, hearing the bangs on the door," he said. "I think that the families appreciated this frank and direct communication."

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