Death Toll Rises to 19 Focus Shifts to Organizers after Love Parade Stampede

German officials confirmed on Sunday that 19 people died and 342 were injured during the mass panic that turned Saturday's Love Parade in Duisburg into a tragedy. Prosecutors have launched an investigation, with initial questions focusing on the organizers' crowd control strategy.

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In 1989, the Love Parade started in Berlin as a peace demonstration. On Saturday, the festival, held in Germany's industrial Ruhr region since 2007, ended in disaster in Duisburg when a mass panic resulted in the deaths of 19 partygoers. A further 340 were injured in the stampede.

The deaths took place as partygoers were pushing through a highway underpass leading to the festival grounds, the only entrance to the party for the 1.4 million people in attendance. According to some accounts, organizers at one point closed the entrance to the party venue, a former freight train station, for an hour but did not prevent more people from streaming into the tunnel. The resulting crush of people fueled both tempers and the resulting panic.

According to a police spokesman on Sunday, most of the deaths occurred when revellers broke through a barricade and began climbing up a steep staircase near the tunnel entrance in an effort to gain access to the party grounds. Many of them fell off, which triggered a panic in the masses down below.

An eyewitness told the German news channel n-tv that the tunnel had acted like a trap. "There were people lying on the ground everywhere," he said. "It was how I imagine war would look." He said that the advancing crowd had run over people lying on the ground and described the situation as "real mass panic."

'Suffering and Pain'

Emergency response crews had difficulty reaching the victims. Officials elected not to evacuate the whole site for fear of setting off another panic, leaving ambulance workers to force their way through the masses as techno music continued blasting around them. The chaos was magnified by the fact that the city's mobile phone service was briefly interrupted just as news of the disaster had begun to spread. Worried parents and families jumped into their cars to drive into Duisburg to try and find their loved ones.

Commenting on the tragedy on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "The young people came to celebrate and instead there are dead and injured. I am horrified by the suffering and the pain." The mayor of Duisburg, Adolf Sauerland, said on Sunday, "I don't find words for the depth of my sorrow. This accident is so horrifying that you cannot describe it." He also warned against jumping to conclusions about who was to blame.

Pope Benedict XVI also expressed sadness over the Love Parade deaths. During his weekly Sunday address from his summer residence at the Castel Gandolfo, he said he was praying for the victims of the tragedy.

According to police on Sunday, most of the dead were from Germany, but four foreigners were among those who lost their lives, including citizens of Holland, Australia, Italy and China.

State prosecutors have opened an official investigation into the tragedy, with authorities having confiscated all documents related to the planning of the party. Initial accusations have been levelled at party organizers, with the German Police Union saying that many security personnel had been concerned about the event before it even started. According to the newspaper Neuen Ruhr/Neuen Rhein Zeitung, a fireman has brought criminal charges after he had warned organizers of the danger area before the tragedy even took place.

'That Never Works'

Much of the critique has centered around the fact that the tunnel where the panic took place was the only entrance to and the only exit from the party site. Furthermore, the German Police Union said on Sunday that they had for years warned that the city of Duisburg was not spacious enough for such a huge event. "At the end of the day, the city and the organizers are responsible for the tragedy," said police union chairman Rainer Wendt told the mass-circulation daily Bild. "The city is too small and cramped for events like this." Wendt also added that police should not be blamed for Saturday's deadly chaos.

"When it comes to the Love Parade, you cannot rely on the rationality of the participants," an experienced police officer told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "That never works."

Love Parade founder Dr. Motte, who no longer has anything to do with the event, said, "the organizers are to be blamed." He told the Berlin tabloid Berliner Kurier that "it is a scandal to only allow the people a single entrance to the party site. They were only interested in making money. The organizers didn't have the least amount of concern for the people."

Both the organizers and the city, however, say that the security planning for the event had been adequately checked beforehand.

The organizer of this year's party was Rainer Schaller, also the head of the McFit fitness gym chain, which was the event's primary sponsor. On Saturday, he promised that "we will do everything in our power to ensure a complete and speedy investigation of this tragedy." On Sunday, he said that there will be no more Love Parades in the future.

The original Love Parade grew out of a 1989 peace demonstration and eventually became one of Berlin's calling cards, attracting 1.5 million people in 1999. But the city eventually became disenchanted with the event -- a disagreement about who was responsible for paying the security and police bill ultimately spelled the end of the annual event in the German capital.

cgh -- with wire reports

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