German Papers Skating on Thin Ice

With little hope of any additional survivors at a collapsed ice skating rink, the German media is switching its focus from the rescue efforts to where they can point the blame for the tragic accident. The general consensus is that flat-roofed arenas have no place in snow heavy Bavaria.

For firefighters in Bad Reichenhall, the search for survivors is over. Now the remaining bodies are being retrieved from beneath the rubble of a collapsed ice skating rink.

For firefighters in Bad Reichenhall, the search for survivors is over. Now the remaining bodies are being retrieved from beneath the rubble of a collapsed ice skating rink.

At least 13 people died in the Bavarian town of Bad Reichenhall after the roof collapsed at an ice skating rink on Monday. A massive build-up of snow apparently caused the flat-roofed structure near the popular Berchtesgaden resort area to collapse, killing or injuring many of the skaters beneath.  

The incident has left many Germans asking how safe their aging public buildings are -- even those built of seemingly unbreakable steel and concrete. Some editorialists in the German press argue on Wednesday that a flat-ceiling structure is inappropriate for a city in the Alps where snow is a regular winter feature. Others say building owners and the government need to take greater precautions to ensure that aging buildings are still safe to use.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung points out that, "almost from the beginning of human thought," residents of the Alps have built their homes and structures with steep roofs, which allows anything wet, including snow to slide off. "No construction is as susceptible to weather, so imperilled and as instable as a broad flat roof," the paper writes. "Especially in the Alps region, where one must count on heavy snow each winter, one must also consider a large hall with a flat roof as a careless construction mistake."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung believes the Bad Reichenhall disaster shows that building inspections, codes and building permit procedures need to be more rigid in Germany. "Halls and skyscrapers in Germany are inspected for their stability less frequently than cars and mopeds are checked for their roadworthiness," the paper laments. With budget cuts and reductions in personnel, local building departments have been unable to conduct the necessary inspections. Add to that the fact that most building owners aren't keen to have their buildings inspected and you can see a vicious cycle emerging. "The fact that concrete constructions could be exposed to the elements for three decades and that no one could see (the damage) -- that has to change." The silver lining in the disaster is that it will force many building owners to wake up: "Communities, cities and state offices will now have to take a closer look at their older buildings."

In its lead editorial, the business daily Handelsblatt cites the tragedy as a major national failure. German engineers can create a tsunami early warning system in Asia, the paper notes, but apparently they can't tell if a plain old ice-skating rink has reached its architectural limits. "Who's supposed to believe this fairy tale?" The paper then goes on to note that every single green thumb who wants to build a gazebo requires a permit, but the rooftops of major halls aren't even subjected to regular inspections. "That's not an act of God," it concludes, "it's a government failure."

On Wednesday, French President Jacques Chirac will lift a two-month state of national emergency that was called in November when groups of mostly North African immigrants rioted in the streets of Paris's suburbs, setting fire to cars and anything else they could get their hands on. The riots ignited a furious debate in France about the country's failure to fully integrate millions of immigrants into society and the labor market.

Chirac's decision to impose the national state of emergency drew considerable controversy, since he relied on an old 1955 law that had been passed during France's colonial period to quell domestic unrest that accompanied the war of independence in Algeria. In a view held by many critics, the decision to use the law showed that France is still haunted by the specter of its colonial past.

According to the conservative daily Die Welt, Chirac wants to lift the ban so as not to poison the new year. "After all, what freely elected government in the middle of Europe wants to use such drastic measures as searches of homes without a court order or imposing curfews on its own citizens? Emergency laws were and will never be the solution." Though the paper fundamentally disagrees with the decision to have imposed the ban in the first place, it is skeptical of Chirac's timing -- the French president said the ban could be lifted because the city had been relatively peaceful over the holidays. But how do you reconcile that with the fact that 425 cars were burned out on New Year's Eve? "Anyone who describes the burning of 425 cars in the night despite a massive police presence as 'largely peaceful' has already surrendered to anarchy," the paper complains. It adds that since the start of unrest at the end of October, not much has changed in France and the riots could be sparked again at anytime. "What's needed now are proposals that could have a fast impact -- more social work and, yes, also more money."

The center-left Süddeutsche praises Paris's prefectures for their cautious application of the emergency law. "Wisely, the prefectures only used the instrument sporadically" and only in certain hard-hit areas, the paper writes. Police wouldn't have dared to visit some of those neighborhoods unarmed even in peaceful times. According to the editorial, a move by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to increase the police presence helped keep new rioting from breaking out over the New Year's holiday. Still, policing doesn't solve the longer-term problem. Chirac is expected to urge his government to fight against social inequality. Indeed, the people in the suburbs need jobs. "But curfews and bans on public gatherings, regardless how sparingly they are applied, don't solve any problems."


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