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Air Show Disaster

Doris Bulau (ah)
August 28, 2008

The Ramstein catastrophe remains one of the worst air show disasters worldwide. The tragedy claimed the lives of 70 people and around 400 were gravely injured on Aug. 28, 1988.

An image of the aircraft collision at Ramstein
Italian air force jets collided during a display at Ramstein in 1988Image: AP

There was a festive atmosphere on a beautiful summer day at the US base in the town of Ramstein on Sunday Aug. 28. The military air show put on by the US Air Force and its NATO allies attracted hundreds of thousands.

Setup to be a German-American public festival, American ice-cream, fries and hamburgers were all on offer, and the air show itself was an added bonus for most spectators. Many didn't even know the Italian squad "Frecce Tricolore" would be performing

Shortly before 4 p.m. the Italians took off for their aerial acrobatics, they are to perform a spectacular feat: A solo pilot is going to intersect the course of five other jets flying directly towards each other at 600 km per hour (370 mph) by just a few meters. The formation is called the "pierced heart."

Then the aerial acrobatic display turned into an inferno: Three aircraft collided, two crashed in a forest, the third hurtled like a fireball into the crowd. The result was terrible: 70 dead and 1,500 were hurt.

Again and again churches and peace activists had warned against the aerial maneuver and so had the opposition center-left Social Democratic Party of Rhineland Palatinate, where Ramstein is located.

But air show fans criticized them for being anti-American.

"I think it's completely nonsensical that people are demonstrating against the US air show," one air show fan said ahead of the display. "If we didn't have it then we would be part of the Soviet Union."

Legal disaster follows tragedy

US air force base at Ramstein
Ramstein is still the US airforce's European headquartersImage: AP

Those who were mutilated by debris and shrapnel or disfigured for life by burns from the firestorm were often only financially compensated after years of legal battles with the authorities.

"There are many people who actually believe that the whole thing worked out as a good deal -- you give up a leg and get 150,000 Marks (76,700 euros, $113,000) in exchange," said Willibald Siert, who spent half a year in the hospital and whose father and brother were burnt in Ramstein. "And I've heard people who think like that more than once. I think it's awful."

Williband Siert has to live with the horrific images of the experience constantly present: unrecognizably burned bodies, burning people rolling helplessly on the ground, hamburger stands burnt away in seconds, the panic, the stampede.

Psychologists have described the situation to be similar to "traumas like after a war." Victims and relatives were given little to no psychological therapy. Many started a search for support in self-help groups.

"We have a woman participating in the group who lost her husband and son," said psychologist Sibille Jatzko. "She gets 280 Marks (143 euros, $210) benefits. The legislator took her into account as a divorcee, which really hurt her. And then the death of a relatively young man was calculated and the benefit works out very small as a result. You can imagine that 280 Marks is not enough to live on."

Disappointing political response

Even the legal response after the disaster was disappointing to many victims. The lawyer responsible threw in the towel after a few months because, according to NATO rules, the Italian authorities were responsible. After one year the German parliament's Ramstein investigative committee was split into two factions that could not be reconciled.

Swiss air craft at a show in Berlin, 2006
Ramstein was not the last air show in Germany, as some had hopedImage: AP

In the end the committee issued two final reports. One by the SPD ruled that the catastrophe was avoidable, and one shared by the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union and the Free Democratic Party who say that the Italian pilot collapsed.

In the direct aftermath of the catastrophe then- Premier in Rhineland Palatinate Bernhard Vogel was already talking about the consequences.

"There will be no more military aerial acrobatics displays in the Republic of Germany," he said.

Immediately after the catastrophe the Bundestag was still unanimous that there could be no more air shows at all. But soon afterwards the tone changed. Then CDU parliamentarian Bernhard Wilz argued that one cannot hide the armed forces, the tax-payers have a right to see them.

The air force acted and on July 1, 1993 24 military aircraft from six countries were flying over the landing strip in Ramstein in formations of four. Countless air shows have been held in Germany since the 1990s.