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The collapsed Cologne city archive on March 3, 2009
Image: Picture-Alliance/dpa/O. Berg

Trial for Cologne city archive collapse begins

January 17, 2018

Nine years after the devastating collapse of Cologne's historic archive, five defendants are finally on trial. They face charges of negligent homicide and hazardous building practices.


Some nine years after the spectacular and deadly collapse of Cologne's city archive, the trial of four men and one woman accused of negligent homicide and dangerous building practices began on Wednesday at the city's state courthouse.

Two of the defendants are from the construction management department of the city's transport operator KVB, which contracted the building of the subway tunnel that is said to have caused the collapse. The other three are from the Arge construction consortium made up of the firms Züblin, Wayss und Freytag and the Bilfinger Group, which were working on the tunnel at the time of the collapse.

City prosecutors had also charged a sixth man, but he has since died.

The court has scheduled 126 days of testimony. Should the defendants be found guilty, they could face several years in prison, as well as serious financial fines. After lengthy delays, the case needed to start this year before the statute of limitations expired.

Trial opens with a surprise

The first day of the trial began with a surprise when it was announced that the 14-year-old half-brother of one of the men killed in the collapse had been named as a joint plaintiff in the case. His lawyer said that the young man wants to know why his brother had to die.

Read more: German officials reveal cause of 2009 Cologne archive collapse

One of the worst building catastrophes of the postwar era

Numerous witnesses and experts are expected to testify during the trial, which must be completed before March 3, 2019, when the 10-year statute of limitations expires. The collapse, which is believed to have been caused by construction work on a nearby subway line, killed two residents in neighboring buildings and destroyed the apartments of 36 more. Prosecutors claim the collapse was caused by faulty construction work.

The construction companies, however, have repeatedly contended that it was caused by hydraulic ground failure and was not a result of negligence on the part of site managers or workers.

Read more: Historic archive is still a gaping wound in the center of Cologne

Most important historical archive north of the Alps

The archive, which was originally established in the Middle Ages, housed tens of thousands of historical documents, the oldest of which dated from the year 992 A.D.

Some 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) of shelves, containing 90 percent of the archive's holdings, were destroyed when the building caved in. The contents they held were subsequently buried in the mud and water of the collapse.

Firemen, first responders and volunteers were able to recover almost all of the documents, but these were severely, and some irreparably, damaged in the collapse.

Efforts are ongoing to piece together and restore those documents that can be saved.

The city is currently building a new archive to house the documents. It is expected to be finished in 2020.

Experts estimate the collapse will cost the city more than €1 billion ($1.2 billion).

js/sms (AFP, dpa)