The way to the island of horror
It was a typical Friday afternoon in Berlin — traffic in the streets and people looking forward to their weekend. A few hours earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had finished her traditional summer press conference in the capital city, where she answered with quite a lot of humor and unusual looseness, journalist’s questions about the Greek crisis and the EU summit in Brussels before she left for summer vacation. I was at home and not aware of the latest news when I got a phone call from the Berlin office: “It’s an emergency. There was a bomb explosion in Oslo. Can you book a flight to Oslo and immediately fly there?” At first I did not know what exactly had happened. My wife searched for information online and the first breaking news images from Oslo had flooded the media. People were wandering amid the rubble in the governmental area of the Norwegian capital.
I booked the next flight from Berlin to Oslo. I had just two and a half hours until departure. I quickly packed my equipment, took a 500 mm telephoto lens and a few days worth of personal belongings. At the airport check-in I met other journalists — a mix of foreign colleagues and the Reuters cameraman with whom I would fly to Oslo. The plane was packed, every seat occupied, mainly with journalists. This was one of the fastest routes to Norway after the bombing. There was free internet onboard so I was able to check the latest news non-stop. There was now concrete news trickling in about a shooting on Utoeya island, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) northwest of Oslo, with a number of people reported dead.
When the plane landed in Oslo at 22:30 it was still light out and given the situation and the information about the shooting on the island Utoeya, I decided to go there immediately. I rented a car at the airport and drove off, with the help of my GPS navigation. Meanwhile I had contacted the Reuters text correspondent and our local photographer who had made one of the first pictures for us from the island. I told him that I would drive to Sundvollen, which is the closest village to the island. There was a hotel where all the survivors and their relatives were being taken. It was raining when I reached the hotel after midnight. I parked and walked into the hotel. There were rescue workers and survivors everywhere and parents who had managed to reunite their children who survived the shooting. When I asked at reception for a room for the night, I realized I was standing in a group of survivors. To stay there — or even to photograph it — was quite impossible. People were crying and hugging each other. There were reports that a considerable number of people had been killed during the shooting on Utoeya island and that there was a connection with the bombing in Oslo. It was after leaving the hotel that I took the first photos of survivors, from outside the police cordon.
It must have been about 3am when I met my colleagues and we decided to rent a boat the next day and take pictures of the island. We wanted to try to get closer to the spot.
Early in the morning we drove to the hotel where the survivors were staying and then to a campsite where we rented a boat. The Norwegian photographer Truls Brekke who knew the area very well, steered the boat in the direction of Utoeya island. Rescue workers were everywhere on lake Tyrifjorden which surrounds the island and were searching for missing victims. News reports said a total of 80 people died in the bombing and shooting.
We got closer to Utoeya, from the boat I saw white spots on the rocks along the shoreline of the island. What could have been covered with what seemed to be white blankets?
As we approached the island I connected my double converter to get a 1000mm telephoto lens. With the help of that lens I could see legs and feet under the white blankets. Everywhere on the shore were corpses of the youths shot by the Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Breivik Behring. It was an eerie, gruesome and frightening moment. We drove around the island and when we arrived on the other side, we were finally stopped by a police boat.
The police told us nicely but firmly that we were no longer allowed to approach the island since it was a crime scene and that we should go along the shore to get back. We took the boat to a police post on the shore in order to get information on whether the media would be allowed on the island later. We were referred to the police spokesman by a policemen who stood on the shore beside a body.
The body was covered but you could see the hair. This image has been engraved in my memory — a picture which I never took with my camera. One nightmarish moment.
Later we went back to the hotel in Sundvollen, where the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, his wife Sonya, King Harald and Crown Prince Haakon were meeting the survivors and the families of the victims and trying to comfort them.
It was noticeable how shocked and paralyzed the Norwegians had become over the past 24 hours. The shock was followed by the mourning that shrouded the country. Nobody thought something like this could happen in Norway.