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Police, organizers trade blame for fatal crush at German fest

The site of the stampede in Duisburg, Germany, where 19 people trying to go to the Love Parade fest died Saturday. The site of the stampede in Duisburg, Germany, where 19 people trying to go to the Love Parade fest died Saturday. (Christoph Reichwein/ Getty Images)
By Kirsten Grieshaber
Associated Press / July 26, 2010

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DUISBURG, Germany — Throngs of techno fans followed the floats, the dancers, and the throbbing music to the festival venue, an old freight railway station that local media estimated could handle 300,000 people.

German media reported that as many as 1.4 million people showed up to the Love Parade, where a mass panic Saturday left 19 people crushed to death and 342 injured. Police blamed organizers and officials in Duisburg, an industrial city that gave the world’s largest techno music festival a home after it was driven from Berlin because of noise and overcrowding.

Witnesses, however, blamed police and private security staff, saying the panic broke out after they closed the end of a tunnel — the only entrance to the festival grounds — when the venue became too full. Police denied that and said they actually opened a second exit to disperse the masses before the accident happened.

It remained unclear yesterday what exactly triggered the panic, but it appeared that several people trying to escape the pushing crowds climbed up a steep metal stairway on a ramp in front of the tunnel and fell into the crowd. Amateur video footage showed thousands of festivalgoers crammed wall to wall, with some trying desperately to climb out.

Police said nobody was killed inside the tunnel.

Since the event was free, even the number of people who attended may never be known. Police did not confirm the 1.4 million estimate and suggested that it was much lower; railway service registered 105,000 as arriving in the city by train in the preceding hours.

One thing is clear: The Love Parade is no more. Organizer Rainer Schaller said it will never be held again out of respect for the victims.

“The Love Parade was always a peaceful event and a happy party,’’ but would forever be overshadowed by the tragedy, Schaller said at a news conference. He promised to cooperate with authorities who have launched an investigation.

Witnesses described a desperate scene, as people piled up on each other or scrambled over others who had fallen. TV images showed huge masses of people packed inside the wide tunnel and people struggling to escape up an embankment when the chaos broke out.

City officials chose not to evacuate the site, fearing it might spark more panic, and many people continued dancing, unaware of the deaths. Rescue workers carried away the injured as techno music thundered in the background.

Police said those killed were between the ages of 18 and 38 and include several foreigners, among them Spaniards, an Australian, an Italian, a Bosnian, a Chinese citizen, and a person from Holland.

Rainer Wendt, the head of a key national police union, told the Bild daily newspaper that the city and organizers are to blame.

“I already warned a year ago that Duisburg is not a suitable place for the Love Parade,’’ Wendt said. “The city is too small and narrow for such events.’’

Duisburg is a city of 500,000 in western Germany’s highly industrialized Ruhr region known for its coal mining and steel production. The region’s economy has declined in recent years and it has been trying to bolster its image on the cultural scene.

The original Berlin Love Parade grew from a 1989 peace demonstration into a huge outdoor celebration of club culture that drew about 1.5 million people at its peak in 1999. But it suffered from financial problems and tensions with Berlin officials in later years, and eventually moved.

Local police and firefighters expressed concerns early on about whether Duisburg was big enough to host a million people or more, many of them possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed shock at the “horrible, sad’’ turn of events and said everything must be done to ensure that such tragedies are not repeated. “I think we need an intense investigation now into how this happened,’’ she said yesterday.

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