Covering the aftermath of the Love Parade stampede
When I arrived at the scene there was no crowd, no screams, just this dark tunnel. A grimy concrete tube about the length of two soccer pitches and the width of a two-lane country road. It felt cramped and haunting even when it stood empty.
But it was not empty.
Broken bottles, ripped off rucksacks, torn-off shoes, a sleeping bag, medical gloves and thermo-blankets bore witness to the tragedy that had occurred here a couple of hours earlier. Young men in light-blue t-shirts of the security firm that was hired to look after the safety of the guests loitered at the rear of the tunnel, their faces gray from disbelief.
The throbbing base of the techno music that came down from the festival above reminded us why those, whose journey ended here, had come: to take part in what was to be the world’s biggest party. Every so often, when the base line heightened to a frenzy, elated yells of dancing revelers pierced the night. For them the party went on.
By this point the medics and emergency cars had left and taken with them hundreds of injured revelers. They had survived the stampede. Others did not. Their bodies lay behind meshed wire fences covered with blue tarpaulins to shield the scene from inquisitive eyes. More people died in hospital. By Wednesday the death toll stood at 21.
We picked up pictures from local photographers that showed the revelers’ desperate attempts to escape from the crush and the subsequent rescue efforts. Yes, these pictures were of graphic nature. But that’s what you need to show the extent of the disaster.
Yet, our task was to cover the aftermath.
Aftermath photography is evocative and subtle. Through pictures of objects or people that are imbued with the dew of a bygone tragedy, it reflects the horror of disaster without showing the gore. There are images of people laying flowers and lighting candles, which usually happens the following day. They come to show empathy with the victims or turn up out of curiosity. A scene of tragedy has an attraction many cannot resist. But there are also those who return to ponder on the horror they have been through.
Early on Sunday I met Heiko Hammer, a 38-year-old who sported the hallmarks of a typical Love Parade reveler: mirrored shades, bright red trainers and a combat-style jacket. He was trapped in the crowd at the rear of the tunnel when the panic broke out. “I will never forget the face of the people who managed to escape. They looked as if they had just come from war,” he said. “People who go to the Love Parade are like birds of paradise. If you trap them, they die. Why were there all those fences?” he asked.
Early on Sunday the police allowed us to enter the area behind the blue tarpaulin at the foot of a staircase, where many people tried to escape from the crowd crush. This was where most of the deaths occurred. My colleague Wolfgang Rattay had arrived there first. I met him at the exit of the small enclosure and he asked me to stay on to see what other images I could make. Wolfgang had taken the picture that was arguably the most emblematic image of this story: the outlines of bodies, painted with white paint on the pavement that was littered with the debris of the disaster. Hundreds of crushed bottles, personal belongings and disposable first aid kits.
A short rainstorm that morning had turned the dusty ground into slush.
The scene was too chaotic to extract meaningful overview pictures other than the ones Wolfgang had already taken. So I scanned the ground as I was curious to find out what distinguished this ostensible pile of rubbish from an ordinary pile of rubbish. I did not have to look hard. Sunglasses. I found dozens of mangled sunglasses. Red ones, yellow ones, pink ones. Some were heart-shaped, others had blades instead of glasses. They were cheap models, those that people wear to have fun, not to protect themselves from the sun. Each one had belonged to someone, for whom this party had turned into a nightmare. I found them driven into the ground by hundreds of feet, next to rubber gloves, a ripped-off belt buckle and trash. I took a picture of every one I could find. That was the best I could do to tell this sad story.
(Click on the above image to view a high resolution version)