Trial starts over collapse of Cologne city archive that killed two

Almost ten years after two people died when Cologne's city archive suddenly collapsed, five people went on trial Wednesday on charges of negligent homicide.

Trial starts over collapse of Cologne city archive that killed two
The site of the collapse in March 2009. Photo: DPA

Prosecutors claim that the collapse of the Cologne city archive in 2009 was caused by mistakes in construction of a new U-Bahn line, an accident which they argue was caused by human negligence.

The archive was built in 1971 using groundbreaking techniques to assure that historical documents could be preserved in a cool environment. Upon completion it became the store for archival material, some of which dated back to the Middle Ages.

But it collapsed suddenly on March 3rd 2009, pulling down two adjacent buildings with it. While construction workers were able to alert archivists and visitors to the building, two young men who were sleeping in the adjacent buildings were buried in the rubble and died.

Most of the archival material could eventually be recovered and repaired.

Prosecutors charge that the collapse was caused by a building error during construction of an U-Bahn station under the archive, which occurred in 2005.

Lead prosecutor Torsten Elschenbroich described on Wednesday how the builders came across an enormous boulder when they were trying to hollow out the space for the station. The boulder lay in an area of the site where a concrete wall was to be built. Repeated attempts to break it apart failed, so under immense time pressure, the foreman decided to build around it.

According to Elschenbroich, the foreman neither reported the boulder to his seniors nor recorded it in the construction log book.

The decision proved to be fatal though, according to prosecutors. Pressure built up at the spot where the boulder was until, four years later, the structure couldn't take the weight anymore, and water gravel and earth broke through and started flooding into the construction site.

Alongside the foreman in court on Wednesday were four more defendants, some employees of the construction company, others city officials. 

Prosecutors charge that they failed to spot the mistakes which led to the collapse. Elschenbroich said there had been “countless failures” in the oversight of the project.

The building company has denied that it could have foreseen the collapse though. It argues that it came about due to a “hydraulic heave”, a natural occurrence which no one could have been prepared for.

Given that it has taken almost nine years for the case to come to trial, there is considerable time pressure on the prosecution to put their case across and convince the judges. Charges of negligent homicide carry a 10-year statute of limitations, meaning that if no judgement is released by March next year, the case will have to be dropped.


Ancient Jewish settlement to be brought back to life in Cologne

No city north of the Alps has been home to Jews for as long as the Roman settlement of Cologne. A recently discovered Jewish quarter is now being brought back to life.

Ancient Jewish settlement to be brought back to life in Cologne
The site of the construction in Cologne. Photo: DPA

If you are a tourist walking through the centre of Cologne, sooner rather than later, you'll come across a construction site located in the very best position, in the middle of the town hall square.

At the beginning of this millennium, the people of Cologne dug into the earth directly in front of their historic city hall and found a treasure from another millennium: the Jewish quarter.

Complete with a dance hall, a hospital, a bakery and a synagogue, the quarter contains the ruins of a settlement from the Middle Ages. It is a city within a city, a miniature world of houses huddled together. 

Of course, all that is left is ruins – one needs a bit of imagination to picture how the whole thing once looked. But experts from Germany and abroad agree: there's nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Ancient tradition

No other German city has been associated with Jewish history for so long as Cologne. 

The first documented Jewish community dates back to the year 321, making it the oldest north of the Alps. 

But in 1349, the neighbourhood was destroyed and its inhabitants were murdered or expelled. Local Christians blamed Jews for the outbreak of the plague.

Currently, a museum is being built over the site on the town hall square. It will be a parallel world underground: visitors will be able to relive life in the Jewish quarter in the era of knights and minstrels on a 600-meter-long trail. The trail also visits the governor's palace from Roman times, which was rediscovered in the 1950s. 

The museum is called MiQua after the name for the Jewish ritual bath, Mikveh.

Exhibits will include artifacts found during the excavations; among them is a crescent-shaped, gem-set gold earring from the 11th century. 

The researchers also discovered a tablet dating back to the Middle Ages with the inscription “yt in ys neyt anders.” This could be translated as “Et is wie et is” (It is as it is) – a classic Cologne saying. 

The museum is scheduled to open in 2024, but through the panorama windows on the third floor of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, also located on Rathausplatz, one can already follow the progress of construction work.

This year Jewish life will be celebrated across the country – the anniversary year '1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany' will be celebrated nationwide. 

Hamburg is organising a themed week entitled 'More than Little Jerusalem'; in Nuremberg the photo exhibition 'Germany's Emigrants' will be opened; and in Herxheim in Rhineland-Palatinate the play Judas by Lot Vekemans will be staged.

READ MORE: 9 hilarious gifts Judaism gave the German language