One of the key witnesses to emerge after last Sunday's deadly apartment building fire in Ludwigshafen, Germany, is an older resident of the building -- apparently the first adult to have seen the early minutes of the blaze. The testimony he has given to investigators has cast serious doubts on theories that the fire may have been set by an arsonist harboring anti-foreigner sentiments.
According to police information obtained by SPIEGEL, the man's grandchildren told him "it smells like something is burning." The man walked to the first floor, where he found the door to the cellar and the walls in flames. He was unable to enter into the basement. As the fire spread, it would ultimately kill nine and injure 60.
The man's account raises serious doubts about the statements allegedly made by the his two granddaughters, whose claim to have observed a stranger inside the building has been widely reported in the German and international media. The eight and nine-year-old girls claimed the man had lit a baby carriage on fire in the building's entry way. If the fire started in the basement, however, these statements could not be true. SPIEGEL has also learned that their grandfather told police that the children hadn't said anything about seeing a stranger inside the building at the time they reported the fire to him.
Germany's Focus magazine is also reporting that the two girls gave conflicting statements -- and that there were inconsistencies in the way each girl described the man. One claimed the man had freckles but was later forced to admit that she didn't even know what freckles were.
According to police, the grandfather was the only person who possessed a key to the basement. The basement door was locked at the time of the fire, and investigators are assuming the blaze started in the cellar. So far investigators have not found any traces of accelerants or other signs of arson in the basement, despite the deployment of measuring equipment and scent-tracing dogs.
Meanwhile, families of the victims and earlier renters have come forward to complain that the wiring in the house had been ramshackle and worn out. Some complained that doorbells and light switches often didn't work, including Fatma Calar, the sister in law of one of the victims. "Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't" she said. Calar had been watching a carnival parade pass by the house on the day the fire broke out. Calar said residents had reportedly complained repeatedly to the building's Turkish landlords about the building's condition. But nothing ever came of it, they claim.
Even the former manager of a skinhead bar that had been operated in the first floor of the building from 1989 to 1992 reported of rotten wiring when the bar had still been open. "Fuses were constantly blowing out, and the wiring was a disaster," he said. In their initial findings, however, police fire investigators have ruled out the possibility of the fuse box being the source of the fire.
Focus is also reporting that police have received testimony from a named witness claiming that electricity had been illegally tapped in the basement.
Although no conclusive evidence has been found so far that the fire was the result of arson or anti-foreigner sentiment, one person who had been at the tenement apartment building on Sunday claimed to have been the subject of an anti-Turkish slur.
Fatma Calar claims that she and her sister-in-law Hülya had been the targets of xenophobic insults. She says a young couple called her a "shit Turk" as she and her sister-in-law watched a carnival parade go by in front of the house shortly before the fire. Afterwards, she returned to her apartment in another part of Ludwigshafen. Her sister-in-law Hülya returned to her apartment with her two children, where they would die in the blaze shortly afterwards.
Immediately after the fire, Turkish media speculated that the deadly tragedy might have been started by a xenophobic, right-wing arsonist. And Germans also reacted with the usual nervousness one has come to expect when these tragedies occur. The governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where Ludwigshafen is located, was quick to describe the fire as an "accident" -- even early in the investigation.
But was it a normal fire, like the thousands that break out each year in Germany in old, rundown homes, that this time just happened to claim nine lives? Or was it another Lübeck, Solingen or Mölln? A political arson attack, sparked by xenophobia?
Turbulence between Turks and Germans
One thing became clearer last week: It doesn't take much to spark resentment between Germans and Turks living in the country, even after 45 years of Turkish immigration here. Despite the fact that more than 3 million Germans take their holidays in Turkey each year or that 2.7 million people of Turkish origin live in Germany, all it takes is the suspicion of an attack for both sides to begin portraying the other as his enemy or to fall back on old stereotypes.
The European editor of the influential Turkish newspaper Hürriyet used the incident in order to attack German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Along with French President Nicolas Sarkozy," Kerem Caliskan told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "Merkel is trying to keep Turkey out of Europe. The discrimination is the main reason for the turbulence and conflicts between the Turks and the Germans."
Indeed, the incident fueled considerable tension between Germany and Turkey. At the behest of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey even sent its own investigators to work with German police and fire officials as they sifted through the rubble to try to determine the cause of the fire. A normal fire investigation had become part of what could become an international political crisis.
However, Erdogan did attempt to assuage tensions during a visit to the site of the tragedy on Friday. He spoke of a "great friendship" between Germany and Turkey that has developed over decades. Both Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for people to remain calm and collected.
While attending the Munich Conference on Security on Saturday, Erdogan said no one should attempt to draw any early conclusions about the cause of the deadly fire. He also repeated his praise of German police and fireworkers, saying they "had done very good work" and had helped to prevent an even greater tragedy.