Germany's worst train accident, 20 years ago, is being remembered at Eschede, northeast of Hanover. A high-speed ICE train derailed, killing 101 people, and left Deutsche Bahn facing deep scrutiny over design and safety.
Eschede, a town of 6,000, and its adjacent regional hub, Celle, on Saturday and Sunday recalled the 1998 train disaster that also prompted reforms of how emergency crews handle trauma.
The metal rim of a defect wheel on the passenger train's first carriage disintegrated just before 11 a.m. on June 3, 1998. Over 6 kilometers, the rogue metal element gauged track and rail-line switches.
The third wagon then clipped a flyover road bridge, toppling it onto eight rear wagons in a deathly jumble that unfolded in only four seconds.
Germany's worst disaster alongside Ramstein
As a tragedy, what happened at Eschede in Lower Saxony state ranks alongside the 1988 air show disaster at Ramstein in southwestern Germany with the loss of 70 lives and the 2002 twin-aircraft collision over the German-Swiss border with 71 deaths.
On board the ICE from Munich to Hamburg had been 287 people traveling at 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph). They had just left Hanover on the last leg across northern Germany's Lüneburg landscape renowned for its wild heather.
Passengers heard abnormal noises but did not trigger an emergency stop. The front unit, powered via overhead electrics, came to a stop 2 kilometers beyond Eschede, alone.
Ninety-nine occupants died in the wreckage or later in hospital. Some 100 others were severely injured. Also killed were two technicians outside servicing tracks.
Major emergency turnout
Some 2,000 ambulance, fire and police personnel, as well as counselors, attended the scene.
Embittered survivors, in a self-help network including relatives of those killed, accused state-owned Deutsche Bahn of ignoring material fatigue during previous wheel checks and failing to compensate them adequately.
In 2003, a court in Lüneburg abandoned negligence cases against three Deutsche Bahn engineers, with each fined €10,000 ($11,670), concluding they bore no heavy blame for the disaster involving the first generation ICE — a prestige vehicle now in its fourth version and marketed abroad.
In 2013, then-rail chief Rüdiger Grube delivered a verbal apology at Eschede, long after Deutsche Bahn had reverted to using solid wheels, instead of the rimmed wheel intended to reduce noise.
An outspoken survivor, Udo Bauer, who was left severely disabled, asserted on Friday that Deutsche Bahn still did not sufficiently recognize that it let the ICE depart with an overly worn-down wheel rim.
His left leg still shakes in moments of panic. "This is for me a life-long penalty," Bauer said, adding that Grube's words five years ago were "too impersonal."
Gisela Angermann, now 80, who lost her 26-year-old son Klaus, first learned via television that a bridge had fallen on the train.
"Then my daughter came to me and said: Mom, sit down. Klaus was on the train," Angermann recounted to the German news agency DPA.
Trauma prompts 'healthier' rethink
Sociologist Jutta Helmerichs, who led trauma counseling after Eschede and is now with the Bonn-based Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance, BBK, said emergency personnel once felt ashamed if they could not cope on the scene and with flashbacks.
"Today, placing high value on [maintaining] one's own health belongs to emergency workers' professional activity," Helmerichs told the Protestant news agency EPD.
Read more: Painful memories of Love Parade disaster
Their preventative approach included sport, healthy nutrition and stable social relations, alongside good equipment, leadership and togetherness, she said.
One of the lessons from Eschede was that counselors for emergency workers must themselves know what it is like to be "confronted with suffering and catastrophe on a sheer unimaginable scale," Helmerichs said.
Network for trauma
Germany's post-war disasters, including Ramstein and Eschede, combined with 11 families left grieving by the September 2001 attacks in the USA, prompted the formation of NOAH in 2002, a psycho-social emergency care network across Germany.
Coordinated from Bonn via the BBK, NOAH spans the German Foreign Office's hotline for Germans caught in disasters abroad, federal and regional police, and crisis-intervention medics and health ministries in Germany's 16 regional states.
ipj/rc (epd, dpa)