Surviving the Love Parade 'There Is Life Before, and Life After'
A stranger saved Victoria Williams' life when she collapsed in the crush of the Love Parade stampede last July in Duisburg. At first she tried to handle the trauma alone, but she later checked into a clinic. Without therapy she wouldn't have gotten her old life back, she says.
The feeling begins suddenly, crawling up slowly from inside. She trembles, sweats and struggles for breath. Early on, she would close her eyes and hope for the attack to pass quickly. But it didn't work. Instead, she saw exactly the flood of images in her mind she'd been hoping to suppress.
Almost one year after surviving the Love Parade disaster, 18-year-old Victoria Williams keeps her dark brown eyes wide open, just as she learned to do in therapy. Then, out loud, she identifies five things each that she sees, hears and feels. Then four of each, three of each, then two, and finally one.
She learned the 5-4-3-2-1-technique at a clinic for children and adolescents in the western German city of Datteln. The 18-year-old vocational college student checked herself in there because she could no longer function in normal life after what she experienced on July 24, 2010.
Williams left her old life in the tunnel she tried to pass through to reach the Love Parade festival ground at Duisburg's old freight train station that day. She never reached her destination. She was trapped in the concrete tube with hundreds of other festival-goers, fearing for her life.
Movie in Her Mind
The incident plays out in her mind like a terrifying short film. It shows Williams with her friends, looking forward to the techno event as they happily danced along with the crowd into the tunnel. But suddenly the scene darkens, becoming hot and close, and she begins to panic. She fights for air as though she is being strangled. She watches as her eyeballs bulge from their sockets and she loses her strength.
Her friends create a circle around her to help her breathe, but it's not enough, and she staggers. A friend heaves her onto his shoulders, but she can't maintain balance there, and slips repeatedly. She can't find her footing on the asphalt, falls, and faints.
A stranger yanks her from the ground and carries her, holding her head and slapping her face to keep her conscious. He saves her life.
The scenes have played out in her mind thousands of times, with increasing frequency and intensity. "As soon as I heard the words Love Parade I would begin to cry," she says, drinking a vanilla shake at a café in her hometown of Lüdinghausen, some 34 kilometers from Münster.
She's wearing a top similar to the one she wore on the day of the tragedy, when 21 people died and hundreds were injured. Her hair is pulled back tightly and her thin arms rest on the back of her chair. Her demeanor does not betray the fact that she still suffers from unanticipated panic attacks.
"There is life before, and life after," she says.
Fear of Straightjackets
Often Williams suffered from panic attacks in the middle of the night. She had nightmares, woke up, cried. Fearing more dreams, she forced herself to stay awake watching television. She also avoided elevators and gatherings of people, whether at a bus stop or a crowded shop.
She also began to prepare herself for situations in advance. If friends planned a party at a camping area, she would agonize for the rest of the week over what it would be like and whether she could muster the strength to go. If friends convinced her to join them at a dance club, she would stand near the exit. "But I usually just didn't go along in the first place," she says.
After speaking with a psychotherapist, Williams knew she was dealing with post-traumatic stress symptoms. Though the conversation helped, she thought she could handle the problem on her own.
But in February, she checked into a psychiatric clinic. It was a difficult decison. Williams didn't see herself as a fearful or troubled person. Her perception of psychiatry was also limited to words such as "straightjacket," "locked ward" and "padded room."
'Then things really got tough'
Williams had a sheltered childhood, growing up in a modern housing estate in the town of Lüdinghausen. She is a quiet, but friendly and polite young woman. She speaks openly about her feelings and psychological treatment. "Perhaps I can give others who believe they can heal themselves a bit of courage," she says. "I believe that anyone who doesn't get help after a similar experience won't be able to process it."
But the treatment was challenging. When she learned of how early patients at the clinic were expected to go to bed at night, she wanted to leave, despite feeling comfortable there and getting along with her roommate.
"Apart from a few discussion sessions, nothing happened," she says, adding that doctors and psychotherapists explained they needed to observe her first. "Then things really got tough."
The therapy seemed to attach a soundtrack to the short film loop in her head. She started hearing cries for help from other victims, along with the worried voices of her friends. But doctors told her the sounds would have eventually arrived with or without therapy.
'I'm not healed'
The treatments were exhausting. "When I knew I had another two-hour discussion ahead, I wanted out," she says. But after just two weeks Williams said she noticed significant progress.
Williams' family has been helping. Her parents give her advance warning whenever a program about the Love Parade is due to come on television. At one point she decided to watch a documentary about the incident, but found she could not finish.
"I'm not healed," she says, squinting pensively in the sunshine. "But I've learned techniques that help me in situations that I would otherwise have greater difficulty with, and that make the sounds and images bearable."
But the desire to find her rescuer has gotten stronger. She wants to tell him that since the day in the tunnel she's encountered enormous challenges, but without his help she would have never had the opportunity to overcome them.