Archive Collapse Last Victim Found as Cologne Effort Switches to History

For over a week, workers at the site of the collapsed archive building in Cologne have focused on finding victim remains. Now, the effort will switches to saving as much of the valuable archive inventory as possible. It is a race against time.


Officially, the investigation into those responsible for the collapse of Cologne's historical archive building is directed against "persons unknown." Furthermore, more than a week after the disaster, no cause has yet been pinpointed.

Outside of officialdom, however, the verdict has already been delivered. Most are convinced that the archive collapsed as a result of the new subway line being built under the street out front. A Thursday report in the Cologne daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger seems to confirm those suspicions.

According to the daily, on the morning of March 3, construction workers noticed massive amounts of water, mud and gravel flowing into the subway trench they were working in. "The pressure was incredibly huge," one of the workers told the paper. Immediately, they evacuated the trench. Noticing that bits of sidewalk were falling into the trench and that pieces were falling off the façade of the city archive building, one of the workers raced inside and began screaming at everyone to get out.

The account is the clearest yet that work on the subway is to blame for the Cologne catastrophe. Indeed, officials in Copenhagen, Denmark are so convinced that they have stopped plans for a new metro ring line -- citing the Cologne collapse -- pending further studies. The €2 billion subway line was to include a station in front of Copenhagen's Marmorkirken church, which is applying for UNESCO World Heritage status.

"We have always been told that there was zero percent risk but we didn't believe it. It would be absolutely ridiculous to continue with the existing proposal," Mikkel Wold, a priest at the Marmorkirken church, told the daily Politiken.

Workers in Cologne on Thursday finally found the body of the second person who had been missing since the archive disaster. Khalil G. had lived on the top floor of a building next to the archive which also collapsed. Officials said on Thursday that an autopsy would be performed to determine if the body found is indeed that of Khalil G. Last Sunday, workers found the body of the only other person believed to have died, 17-year-old Kevin K.

Now that the final victim has been found, the focus can shift to saving as much of the valuable archive inventory as possible. So far, the search for the victims has meant that huge quantities of rubble, including the documents buried within, have been just shovelled aside, likely doing even further damage.

Still, there have been some successes. Cologne Mayor Fritz Schramma said this week that up to 25 percent of the material housed in the archive has been saved so far, including pieces of great value. Cologne held two of four existing manuscripts in the hand of Albert Magnus, considered the greatest German theologian of the Middle Ages. One of those has been recovered.

Numerous archives around Germany have offered their assistance in restoring damaged documents, including the Herzog August Library, which holds a valuable collection of medieval and early modern works and is home to Germany's largest document restoration workshop.

Still, the archivists are engaged in a race against time. Soon after the building collapsed, rain began falling on the ruins. Rubble is being brought to a dry warehouse so that workers can carefully sift through it in the search for documents. Once paper gets wet, though, damaging mold quickly sets in. Archive material is being sent to restoration facilities around the country where they will be flash frozen and then stored for two years before they can be cleaned.

It is an immense project, and one which will take years, if not decades, to complete. A restoration workshop in the city of Münster, for example, can restore up to 150 meters worth of documents per year. The material in the Cologne archive, however, took up fully 30 kilometers of shelf space. In addition, Markus Stumpf, who heads up the archival office in Münster, told Handelsblatt that "the personnel necessary for such a catastrophe simply doesn't exist."

Adding to the difficulties is the fact that many of the documents housed in the Cologne archive were parchment, instead of paper. "The parchment used for deeds in the Middle Ages is extremely sensitive to water," Jan op de Hipt, head restorer for the Hamburg state library, told the Hamburger Abendblatt. "Parchment is dried animal skin. When it comes into contact with water, it becomes very soft and begins to shrink."

Researchers are particularly concerned about an important collection of documents from the Hanseatic League from the 13th to 17th centuries. The Cologne archive contained some 500 deeds from this period in addition to numerous other documents. Part of the collection was brought to Cologne in 1594. So far, the collection has not been found. "Even if it could be saved," archive expert Martin Schoebel told German news agency DPA, "it will take decades to restore them so that they can once again be made available to historians."

cgh -- with wire reports

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