‘It happened so fast’: Berlin in shock after car ploughs into pedestrians

A car was driven into a crowd of people, including school pupils, on a busy Berlin street on Wednesday, killing one person and injuring several others, before crashing through a store. People said they heard screams, and a large bang.

Emergency services at the scene in Berlin where a car crashed into pedestrians.
Emergency services at the scene in Berlin where a car crashed into pedestrians. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

The driver, a 29-year-old German-Armenian man living in Berlin, was detained by police following the crash on Wednesday morning shortly before 10.30am. 

According to reports, the silver Renault Clio first rammed into a crowd at the corner of Tauentzienstraße and Rankestraße, before returning to the road and then slamming into the window of a Douglas perfume and make-up store on Marburger Straße, about 150 metres away.

A group of school students on a class trip from Hesse were hit, and their teacher died. Several people from the group were injured, some with life-threatening injuries. 

READ ALSO: Teacher dead and school pupils injured in Berlin after car drives into crowd

Police haven’t said whether the crash was intentional. On Thursday they said their investigations were continuing. 

Berlin interior minister Iris Spranger said that “according to latest information” the attack seemed to have been “committed by someone suffering from psychological problems”.

People gathered in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Gedächtniskirche) on Wednesday evening to pay tribute to the victims of the crash. 

Witnesses described how the car mounted the pavement. 

A 58-year-old man from the Philippines said he was walking on Kurfürstendamm on his way to work when he was almost caught by the car after it veered off the road and into pedestrians.

He told The Local how he saw the car drive into a crowd of people, and heard shouts and screams as people were knocked out of the way.

“Thank God I was walking on the side of the pavement and not in the middle,” he said.

“Otherwise I could be in hospital now. Of course I feel very sad and I’m in shock.”

A large area near the Gedächtniskirche (memorial church) was closed to the public as police carried out investigations. 

There was a quiet mood in the afternoon, with lots of people standing around in shock. 

Close to Berlin Zoo, the area in Breidscheidplatz is usually packed with people, especially shoppers and tourists. 

Dozens of police vans as well as fire and rescue vehicles were parked on the roads. 

Emergency workers stand on a cordoned-off street after the car crash in Berlin.

Emergency workers stand on a cordoned-off street after the car crash in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

Frank Vittchen, a witness at the scene, told AFP he was sitting at a fountain nearby when he “heard a big crash and then also saw a person fly through the air”.

The vehicle drove “at high speed onto the pavement and didn’t brake”, he said, with its windows shattering from the impact.

“It all happened so fast,” he said.

A waiter from a restaurant near the crash scene told the Berliner Zeitung how a car travelling at high speed rammed into people, and “bodies just flew through the air”.

The waiter said he ran to help the victims.

Another witness, who declined to be named, said the people hit by the car included a group of 15-16 year olds, and that two teachers were among those injured.

British-American actor John Barrowman, who was near the street at the time, said on Twitter: “I heard the bang and the crash when we were in a store and then we came out and we just saw the carnage,” he said.

‘I thought someone had been shot’

Outside the police cordon, most shops remained open.

A 30-year-old security guard who was working at a store directly across the road from where the crash happened, told The Local: “I heard the glass smash in the shop across the street.

“I thought someone had been shot. But then my boss told me that it was a driver who had driven down the pavement.

“The police were there in about five minutes. There were lots of people just standing around watching.”

The crash happened close to Breitscheidplatz – where an Islamic State group sympathiser ploughed a truck through a Christmas market in 2016, killing 12 people. In the wake of the attack, authorities implemented security measures in the area.

“There is still a gaping wound in the heart of this city,” said police spokesman Thilo Cablitz after updating reporters on the car crash on Wednesday. 

Many are feeling anxious after the latest incident.

The security guard said: “It’s terrible. It’s really scary. How are mothers and small kids supposed to walk on the street now when things like that happen?”

A worker at a nearby book shop said: “Me and all my colleagues are in shock. We didn’t see it with our own eyes but we all started getting messages from our friends and family asking if we were okay.”

Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey said she was “deeply affected by the incident” and planned to go to the scene. 

A German government spokeswoman said the government was “very concerned and shocked” by the “terrible incident in Berlin” adding that their thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones.

With reporting from AFP and Rachel Loxton

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”