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Central Berlin evacuated for World War II bomb removal

April 20, 2018

Evacuation measures have affected thousands in the German capital as authorities defused a World War II bomb. With Berlin's main station in the evacuation area, there were major disruptions to traffic.

Experts about to defuse the bomb
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Polizei Berlin

Authorities in Berlin on Friday successfully defused a 500-kilogram (1,102-pound) British World War II aerial bomb that was found during construction work on Wednesday.

Evacuations of all buildings within 800 meters of the site started from 9 a.m. to allow the bomb disposal to take place. Berlin's main train station fell within the evacuation area, potentially causing disruption for thousands of passengers.

There was something of a holiday atmosphere around the station on Friday morning, as the last few passengers moving out of the station were easily outnumbered by the reporters and TV crews there to interview them, and, unusually, few people seemed to have complained about the organization provided by Germany's rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB).

Immediately after the bomb was defused, authorities lifted all barriers around the site, and the main railway station was operational again by mid-afternoon.

Holiday atmosphere

Deutsche Bahn employees standing around in the bright spring sunshine offered free water and information — though the evacuation, as DB spokesman Achim Stauss pointed out, had been well reported in local media in advance.

"Today we feel that the travelers are well-prepared — everyone seems to have heard in advance that it is happening," he told DW. "We've never had the scenario before that the railway station was completely shut down for several hours," said Stauss. "So it's a challenging situation, but it's not as bad as other difficult situations, such as when the storms in the fall and winter completely stopped the trains."

The bulk of Friday's complex operation — including the defusing of the bomb itself — was carried out by the Berlin state police. "Since 9 a.m., my colleagues have been walking through the streets of the affected areas of the evacuation zone, knocking on the doors and asking the inhabitants to leave their homes," said Berlin police spokeswoman Konstanze Dassler. "Up to now everything is going smoothly. I'm not aware of any complaints.

"Of course the location of the bomb is pretty inconvenient," she told DW. "We have had a lot of experience defusing bombs and of course with creating evacuation zones, but with the main railway station affected has had a slightly bigger effect."

'Unusually large, unusually thick, unusually heavy'

The discovery of unexploded bombs is not uncommon in Germany, with more than 2,000 tons of bombs and ammunition unearthed across the country every year, though this bomb is "unusually large, unusually thick, and unusually heavy," according to Dassler. "But it is in the hands of specialists, and we trust that this disposal will end positively."

This trust was echoed by other tourists at the scene, such as those staying in a nearby hotel that was just outside the evacuation zone. "Everyone seems very relaxed about it," one German woman said as she wandered past the station. "It seems like Berliners are used to it."

Others, such as velo-taxi driver Golo, saw a small opportunity. "This is usually a really busy place for us," he told DW. "But now that the taxis can't drive up to the station and the roads are blocked, I'm hoping to pick a couple of people up."  

Police wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that the bomb was in a safe condition and was not causing any immediate danger.

"We have a lot of respect of course for the work involved in defusing a bomb like this," said Stauss. "We're all crossing our fingers that it will work out, but we're not afraid, and we have full trust in the state police, and we hope we'll be able to re-open the station by 2 p.m."

In fact, as a spokesman for the Berlin fire service pointed out, much of the most difficult work would be taking place away from the cameras, elsewhere in the evacuation radius — part of a nearby hospital, one of the biggest in the city, also had to be evacuated, as were many housebound or bedbound residents nearby.

Announcement board at Berlin station
Berlin's main train station was closed to allow the bomb to be defusedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

More than a million of tons of bombs landed in Germany during World War II and more than one tenth are thought to be unexploded. Britain's Royal Air Force, in particular, strategically targeted densely populated urban areas in the latter stages of the war.

A bomb expert at the site told DW that these kinds of bombs were quite stable while they were not being moved, but once they began to move it could become unsafe, which was why authorities were not taking any risks.

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight