German chancellor Angela Merkel promised an “intense” investigation into the deaths of 19 people at a techno music festival as witnesses put the blame on police and security staff.
German media said as many as 1.4 million people turned up at the Love Parade, where a mass panic on Saturday crushed 19 people to death and injured 342 others.
Police blamed organisers 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.
Throngs of techno fans had followed the floats, dancers and the throbbing music to the festival venue – an old freight railway station that local media estimated could handle 300,000 people.
It remained unclear 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 festival-goers crammed wall to wall, with some trying desperately to climb out.
Police said nobody was killed inside the tunnel itself.
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 based on the fact that the railway service registered 105,000 as arriving in the city by train in the preceding hours.
Love Parade organiser Rainer Schaller said the event would 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, he said.
Mrs Merkel expressed shock at the “horrible, sad” turn of events.
“I think we need an intense investigation now into how this happened,” she said in Bayreuth yesterday, where she was attending the opening of the yearly Wagner music festival. “We must do everything to prevent this from being repeated.”
Pope Benedict XVI said he learned of the tragedy in his native Germany “with profound pain” and said he was praying for the victims and their loved ones.
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 aged between 18 and 38 and included several foreigners, among them Spaniards, an Australian, an Italian, a Bosnian, a Chinese citizen and a person from Holland.
According to reports, local police and firefighters expressed concerns early on about whether Duisburg was big enough to host over up to a million people or more, many of them possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
And a fire brigade chief warned the city’s mayor in a letter in October 2009 against holding the event at the old freight station “because the place is not big enough for all the people”, the daily Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger said.
Rainer Wendt, the head of a key national police union, told the Bild daily newspaper that the city and organisers were to blame.
“I already warned a year ago that Duisburg is not a suitable place for the Love Parade,” he said. “The city is too small and narrow for such events.”
Duisburg is a city of 500,000 in western Germany’s highly-industrialised 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.