It lasted just four minutes as a man plowed his car into unsuspecting pedestrians. Five people were left dead. The city of Trier in western Germany is in a state of shock. People are asking: "Why?"
For Father Aloys Hülskamp, December 1 began like any other Tuesday. In the early afternoon, he was attending a funeral, he said, sitting on one of the pews at the Christ Kingdom Church, which is located about 10 minutes from the center of Trier.
For about 15 years, Hülskamp has been working as an emergency counselor, supporting people who have experienced a sudden fatality in their families.
After the funeral, he checked his messages. There was one from a colleague: "I phoned her back and she described what had happened. She told me all emergency counselors were requested to make their way to the center of town, the municipal theater."
Hülskamp arrived at about 2:30 in the afternoon, shortly after an SUV had raced into a busy pedestrian area and rammed men, women, and children. Five died. The youngest a nine-month-old baby.
As the emergency counselors arrived on the scene, they were told that victims of the attack, and others who witnessed it, were being moved into the central theater building, where they could get some initial comfort and guidance. "It was a kind of registration procedure. People's details were noted down. Emergency doctors were on hand," Hülskamp said.
Then it was the job of the intervention counselors to take aside individuals or small groups and talk them through their experiences.
Some of them were only visiting Trier, perhaps to do some Christmas shopping. One young man, Hülskamp said, spoke about how he saw a woman flying through the air and then looked on as the vehicle continued to zigzag its way through the shopping zone. "His wife was with him," Hülskamp said. "But she was in one of the shops when it all happened. They have children of their own — a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old — which made it all the more devastating that a baby was among the dead. It really touched me: such young parents."
In emergencies like the one in Trier it is important to reassure people, Hülskamp said. "They need to understand that they don't have to be strong. They don't need to hold back their feelings. We are not machines, where somebody turns a switch and everything is OK," Hülskamp said.
Throughout Wednesday, hours after the memorial ceremony at Porta Nigra, the Roman city gate, where the attack began, people were still gathering to share their pain and their distress with flowers and candles. Nobody can even really begin to grasp what has happened. The sea of flowers grew with every hour.
Porta Nigra marks the beginning of the shopping district where the driver set off on his deadly rampage. Now it is lined with flowers and candles. In front of one store, there is a particularly large flower tribute. It was here that one of the victims died.
The street leads to the market square where the police and counselors have set up a mobile crisis intervention center.
Many of the people experiencing emotional trauma after the attack began to seek help Wednesday, said Marc Powierski, who heads the Trier police department's division for crime and traffic-accident prevention. He arrived at the market square at 7 in the morning on Wednesday to help staff the intervention center:
"There were lots of people who said that they went straight home yesterday, that they simply didn't feel up to talking to anybody," Powierski said. "So it's only now that they're beginning to come to us and seek help."
The manager of a business said his staff saw someone killed right out front. But people are not avoiding the scene: It seems that may want to get back to "normal" as quickly as possible.
Powierski said the suddenness and arbitrariness of the attack had shocked people. "It's also a huge blow to the many others who had been downtown just before the attack, or those who know people who were in the center of the town," he said. "It came out of nowhere. Anybody could have been affected. It's still so palpable."
Adele is also struggling to come to terms with it all. She came to Porta Nigra to leave a candle. "It's so terrible," she said. "I really want to express my consolations and my solidarity for the victims." The attack began while she was at work, she said, and she started to hear the first details during her lunch break. "Half an hour earlier, I was myself in the street where it happened," she said.
Hülskamp said the killings could have happened anywhere: "We will never have total security. It simply doesn't exist." But he is concerned that many people will be much more cautious, much more nervous when they begin to go back into town again. "I'm sure that next time I ride through Trier on my bike, I'll be reminded of what we have been through," he said.
Still, Hülskamp remains hopeful. "Yesterday was very dramatic, very sad: a sense of helplessness and anger," he said. "At the same time, though, it's incredible how many people there were who got involved, who were willing to do their bit, to stand up and be counted. Unbelievable solidarity. A demonstration of what it means to pull together."
"What we're seeing is thousands of people opening up and listening to others, in schools, at work, everywhere," Hülskamp said. "All of them are counselors. Everybody in Trier is experiencing the same thing. We are all in the same boat. We're all desperately sad because we've all been through the same thing."
On Thursday, church bells are set to ring out across the city at precisely 1:46 p.m. — 48 hours after the moment when the horror began.
Trier is only beginning to cope with the impact of that horror.
This article was translated from German.