German Rail Disaster: Silent carnage among the wild roses

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SEEN from below, the bridge close to Eschede station, where wild roses are in bloom on the approach road, looks unspectacular. Only in one place do the remains of an Inter City Express (ICE) coach protrude - hollow and ghostly - into the air.

Torn by the force of the impact, the connecting passage at the end of the carriage stretches skywards like a gaping mouth - as though the silver- grey compartment had uttered a death cry, when one coach, travelling at around 125mph, rammed straight under the previous coach, which had smashed into the bridge.

Several coaches lie wedged over and into each other. Together, they are less than 20 metres long - but piled up almost as high. Only the tip of the flattened final coach, with the red "ICE" logo, which came to a halt before smashing into the ruins, retains its own shape.

"The bridge just broke through," said Manfred Theil, who arrived on the spot with the first ambulances. "It was pure chaos, with dead and injured lying everywhere."

A British soldier who led a unit of troops to help rescue the victims spoke last night of the "absolute devastation".

Colour Sergeant Phil Forsyth, 32, from Newcastle, and 20 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, based at Celle in Germany, were among the first to arrive at the site.

Speaking from the regiment's base just minutes away, Sgt Forsyth said: "An horrific sight met us. Some five or six carriages were piled up on top of each other. It was completely silent. Nobody could have walked away from that. I fear the death toll will be very high."Sgt Forsyth said: "We didn't go into the carriages but helped with carrying the casualties away on stretchers.

"The German emergency services were very professional and were doing a systematic clearance of the carriages. There was nothing more they could do."

At the scene, there are dozens of ambulances, and helicopters circle overhead. Among the medical helpers and television cameras, seven black limousines waited patiently. They are the undertakers' cars from the nearest town.

A crane is supposed to lift those parts of the bridge which have buried two carriages under them. Nobody knows what they will find there.

Wolfgang Arndt, a hospital doctor, was in the operating theatre when the alarm was sounded. In a nearby gymnasium hall, he stares with empty eyes into his coffee.

He says there is no comparison with a motorway pile-up. "There's a quite different force behind it. It is not comparable." A nurse points out: "When one imagines that this is just the mild version, you feel queasy. After all, the train ran into a stationary object, not into a train coming from the opposite direction."

Exactly what happened is still impossible to say. The regional spokesman for German Railways repeats the same message again and again: that the Munich-Hamburg train must have rammed the bridge pillar beside the rails when it shot through Eschede station with 13 coaches at a speed of around 125mph. The duty manager at the nearby station saw the lone locomotive "just driving past" - and immediately put on the stop signal for all other trains.

Only three second-class coaches passed under the bridge, and were derailed with relatively little damage. Two further coaches lie under the collapsed bridge. The remaining coaches had concertinaed in front of it.

The spokesman shrugs his shoulders helplessly, when asked why the train became separated from the locomotive. "Why the ICE touched the bridge, after going through here every day and always remaining unscathed, I don't want to speculate." The train driver survived, but was in shock. He knew nothing of the car which was said to have fallen from the bridge on to the rails.

In the Frankfurt headquarters of Deutsche Bahn railways, they are equally hesitant to give the causes of the accident. "As long as we don't know the exact cause of the accident, it makes no sense to speculate on the safety systems of the ICE," spokesman Hartmut Sommer said. The system had been checked by the appropriate federal institute; there had been no previous problems.

Despite the accidents, and even if the grisly events at Eschede seem to contradict it: the statistics show that rail traffic is still the safest way to move. In the seven years since the beginning of the ICE age, there had until yesterday been no serious accident with the super-train - only a death on a building site, and a collision in a repair workshop. Since 1991, 130 million passengers have been carried in the ICE trains.

The spokesman for the VCD, an organisation promoting alternative forms of transport, was by chance in Bonn yesterday, pressing for a change in ways of travelling - with the support of the railways. "One travels in the train as safely as in the lap of Abraham," said Burkhard Reinhardtz. The friends and relatives at Hamburg main station believed the same, as they stood waiting for the Munich train. Many of them probably only heard the news when they went home.

The arrivals board at the station initially merely declared a two-hour delay - because of "operational difficulties". Only after an hour and a half was it finally announced that the train expected at platform 12 would never arrive.

The authors are correspondents for the German daily newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau.