Had it not been for Ian in Hamburg, one of my dependable conduits for news of the quirky, the bizarre and the occasionally unbelievable, I would have missed recent events in Duisburg, an old-fashioned German steel town with the world’s largest inland harbor.
Eager to spiff up his town’s image while taking advantage of music fans’ willingness to part with their Euros, the Mayor of Duisburg, Adolf Sauerland, pursued and won the right to host Love Parade 2010. Originally held in Berlin in 1989, the dance music festival was moved to the Ruhr region in 2007. Concerns about size, safety and security had led to cancellation of the event in some years, and in 2009 the city of Bochum refused to grant permits, fearful they would not be able to cope with the crowds.
It was at that point Mayor Sauerland made his move. “It was Sauerland’s big thing,” said Johannes Pflug, a Social Democrat who represents Duisburg in the federal Parliament, or Bundestag. “He wanted to show that Duisburg could do it, that he could change the image of Duisburg. But now, after the tragedy, he is in a very difficult situation.”
Indeed he is. By the time events sorted themselves out and the festival finally was brought to a close, 21 people had been killed and hundreds injured, crushed as thousands of revelers tried to flee the tunnel that was the only point of access to the festival. As a timeline provided by Deutsche Welle describes it:
16:50: The event area is closed off due to overcrowding. An estimated 500,000 people wait outside the single entry point, a tunnel located on Karl-Lehr Street, unable to move forward or go back to the station. Police begin asking people to turn back. People in the crowd are unable to see that the area behind the tunnel is closed off. Police were alerted to the potential threats due to overcrowding as people ignored directions to leave the area and instead continued attempts to enter the festival via the tunnel.
17:00: A bottleneck forms in the tunnel as people continue pushing forward. Simultaneously, others attempt to move in the opposite direction to return to the railway station. The air begins to thin and panic builds as some attempt to escape – to no avail.
Quoted in The Independent, Germany’s Der Spiegel revealed the Duisburg police and fire brigade had conducted a pre-festival study and concluded it would be unwise to make the tunnel the only access route to the Love Parade site. Their recommendation for several access routes was rejected, allegedly because of increased costs associated with policing the additional entrances.
Allegations of planning deficiences made by the Duisburg police and fire brigade were backed by the German police trades union. According to Der Spiegel, police security experts had “huge reservations” about the planning for the event. Wolfgang Orscheschek, Deputy-head of the regional police union, said the site chosen for the festival was far too small. According to Orscheschek, “The city government was cornered by the organisers to such an extent that, despite the urgent warnings of the security experts, they could only say yes.”
As word of the tragedy spread, Chris Liebing, a German DJ and respected producer of Techno who releases on various music labels including his own CLR issued a statement on Love Parade, excerpted here:
Over the years, the number of attendees has been rising, and so have the financial needs. As costs were rising (city cleaning, etc.) so has the profit (for the community and the others involved). Suddenly there was a certain “image” attached, which brands could use to increase their value.
Looking back, it is actually a logical consequence… that an event like this would eventually fall into the hands of people who see “celebrating, dancing and having fun together” not as the main reason to host a Love Parade. This would still be tolerable, as long as human life would not be endangered, but what happened here is beyond anything one would have ever imagined.
It is absolutely appalling and shocking that the responsible organizers of the Love Parade and the city council in Duisburg have misused the “Techno Movement” with those fatal results. In their striving for image and profit, they have disregarded all measure of control and security and put people who really just wanted to celebrate, dance and have fun together in a situation in which 21 innocent persons had to die and countless have been injured and traumatized.
…The least we owe to those who have died and those who got injured is that we make sure that something like this won’t happen again in the future. New laws and rules won’t really help. We have seen that we can’t even trust those who should make sure that those rules are getting observed…To really change something, we have to start with ourselves…
Clearly, those who were responsible for seeing that rules were observed have a little explaining to do. After attempting to blame the victims themselves by referring to “individual weaknesses” which led to the disaster, Sauerland increased people’s anger by denying that doubts had been raised about festival security. “I was not aware of any warnings,” he told the Rheinishen Post.
Nevertheless, it seems clear Sauerland lobbied on behalf of the Love Parade, sweeping aside doubts expressed by members of the city administration, the town council, police and fire brigade. The director of the Duisburg fire brigade warned in a letter to Sauerland that the area chosen for the event was “physically unsuitable”. Publicly-released minutes of a discussion between Duisburg city officials, the fire brigade and Love Parade organizers make clear the mayor “wished the event to go ahead, and that therefore a solution had to be found”.
Sauerland was not alone in his desire to keep the event on the calendar. Fritz Pleitgen, head of the European Capital of Culture Ruhr.2010 project exerted pressure on Duisburg to ensure that security concerns not lead to cancellation. The former Social Democratic Party (SPD) chair of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and its current prime minister, Hannelore Kraft, also insisted this “piece of youth culture” not be endangered. Even more startling, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) MP Thomas Mahlberg recommended dismissing the Duisburg chief of police, Rolf Cebin, because of Cebin’s views that, “Outstanding security problems stand in the way of carrying out the Love Parade in 2010.”
Mayor Sauerland and Love Parade organiser Rainer Schaller have pointed fingers at the police, claiming a decision to open the western tunnel entrance led to the disaster. Meanwhile, police accuse the organizer of employing too few and under-qualified security staff. Not to be outdone, North Rhine-Westphalia Interior Minister Ralf Jäger blames Schaller for not abiding by security guidelines, setting the scene for mayhem to occur.
One police chief based in the city of Cologne told the newspaper Express, “There were 12 to 13 local meetings in Duisburg. And every time we were united in our opinion that the planned concept would end in chaos with deaths and injuries… We were just informed time and time again, there was to be no discussion. City hall was of the opinion: The Love Parade has to happen.”
Reading accounts of what did come to pass in the wake of Duisburg’s seriously flawed planning process, I remembered other incidents awash in a toxic mixture of poor planning, inadequate inspection, lack of foresight, political pressure and official corruption.
The December, 2009 Lame Horse club fire in Perm, Russia was just such an event. For eight years the Lame Horse had operated as a fire-trap. A wooden ceiling, plastic sheeting and a plethora of dried twigs used as decoration, a single exit from a space capable of holding more than 400 people and the indoor use of fireworks – all were forbidden by local fire codes and other laws. Unfortunately, the laws never were enforced. After cold-flame pyrotechnics ignited the ceiling, the panic, confusion and smoke led to at least 113 deaths and 130 injuries.
Response was swift and direct. “There is a criminal levity toward life, one’s own and the lives of others, that prevails in this country,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “There is a Russian attitude which we call ‘avos‘ (roughly meaning ‘que sera, sera‘) that led them to think, ‘Hey, we’ve been doing this for eight years and it’s always been OK. So why worry?’”
Alexander Fridman, a local entertainment producer in Perm, goes farther, asserting that official corruption must be factored into any explanation of the Lame Horse tragedy. “Fire inspectors found violations of the regulations a year ago, yet they didn’t come back to check whether corrections were made. Why was that?” he asks. “There were hundreds of people gathering at that club every night, yet they never closed it down. The basic lesson is that fire inspectors should not take bribes.” Fridman is hardly alone in his assessment. Senior Russian officials acknowledge that fire inspections are routinely used as a way to demand bribes from establishments, rather than enforce safety rules.
Despite the distance of Perm and Duisburg from the Gulf of Mexico, it’s impossible to hear these stories of a Love Parade gone wrong and a desperately sad Russian nightclub fire without thinking of our current example of human error, casual arrogance and inattention to detail: Deepwater Horizon.
All of the elements from the Duisburg and Perm tragedies are there to be seen in the Gulf oil spill: the finger-pointing, the refusal to take responsibility for decision-making, a dismissive attitude toward safety concerns, a willingness to place profit above the well-being of individuals and their communities, an acceptance of corrupt practices and a desire, however hidden, to blame the victims themselves. In the words of Techno DJ Chris Liebing, “In their striving for image and profit, they have disregarded all measure of control and security.” In the words of a friend on the Louisiana bayous, “They thought they could get away with it forever.”
In truth, there still are those who believe they will be the ones to “get away with it forever”. And yet some have begun to pay the price, however minimal that price might be. Adolf Sauerland, says Bjorn Munich, a 35-year-old Duisburg resident, would have been lynched had he attempted to attend the memorial service for the Love Parade victims. No longer sleeping at home, he is described as a pariah, living in his office and protected day and night by the police. Fearing for their safety, his family have left town.
As for BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward, he is heading off to the land of the Lame Horse Pub, a land where questionable safety practices, cozy relationships between business people and governmental officials and an acceptance of outright bribery is commonplace. He ought to feel right at home.
As a non-executive board member of BP’s Russia venture, Moscow-based TNK-BP, it has been suggested that “his contacts in the Russian government and with the Russian shareholders would serve him well.” It’s also worth noting this passing remark from a Business News report: “Most of TNK-BP’s 200 oil fields are situated far from open water in the Siberian tundra, although the company is looking to produce oil offshore in the Caspian Sea. The Russian government has never raised concerns about the safety of TNK-BP’s operations.”
In a final bit of irony, even as Mr. Hayward continued packing his bags for Russia this past weekend and Mayor Sauerland did his best to avoid showing his face in public, the huge festival known as WOMAD (World of Music, Art and Dance) was held in Wiltshire, England. As expected, it was trouble-free. Prior to the event, festival organizer Chris Smith said he doubted the Love Parade tragedy would be repeated. As he put it, “We take safety incredibly seriously in the UK. I think we have higher standards than anyone else.”