Thursday, March 05, 2009

Cologne City Archive Collapses

Cologne's six-story city archive building rumbled and then collapsed into a pile of rubble Tuesday. Many people inside were able to flee to safety, but authorities said they were searching for two to four people missing from nearby buildings.

Cracks and groaning noises had alerted staff and visitors at the archive, all of whom escaped before it collapsed.

Some of Germany's most valuable documentary treasures may have been destroyed, wiped out in the three minutes it took for a six-storey building to become a pile of smouldering brickwork on Tuesday afternoon. If they are ever recovered, the documents will almost certainly be irretrievably damaged.

"We are talking here about 18 kilometres of extremely valuable archival material, of absolute importance to European culture," Eberhard Illner, the head of the city archives, said. "Now the memory of a European city has been destroyed. I can only hope, but cannot believe, that some of these fragile documents survived under tonnes of concrete and steel."

The archives included the minutes of all town council meetings held since 1376. Not a single session had been missed, making the collection a remarkable resource for legal historians.

The earliest document stored in the building dated back to 922, and there were hundreds of thousands of documents spread over six floors, some of them written on thin parchment. A total of 780 complete private collections and half a million photographs were being stored.

"Even if there isn't something that hasn't been pulverised or destroyed by water, it will take decades of restoration work," said the historian Joachim Oepen.

When the building was constructed, a small nuclear-bomb proof chamber was included in the cellar to protect the most precious pieces. But in recent years, the chamber has been used only to store cleaning material.

There was even less warning of the collapse of the building than would have been given during a nuclear attack. Workers on the rooftop heard a cracking noise and immediately alerted the 26 people using the archives at the time. Less than three minutes later later, the building was flat.

If there are human victims, they are entombed under an amusement arcade that adjoined the archives. The fire brigade said today that there might be two or three people crushed under the tangled girders, but that their chances of being found alive were diminishing by the hour.

Staff at the archives first noticed cracks in the cellar early last year, but the building was deemed safe. Preliminary blame is being laid on the construction nearby of a new underground railway station.

Gregor Timmer, a spokesman for the city of Cologne, said rescuers needed to stabilise the remains of the structures before moving into the rubble to determine whether anyone was trapped inside. "The buildings to the left and right of the collapse site are severely damaged and are in danger of partly falling down. That is why rescuers are currently unable to step onto the rubble," he added.

On Tuesday evening, concrete was pumped into the ground to firm it up. Two hundred rescue workers are still at the scene.

The six-storey building collapsed at about 1400 local time (1300 GMT), bringing down two other neighbouring buildings. One witness said the scene resembled a Hollywood movie as cracks slowly spread up the building's facade before it collapsed in a cloud of dust.

Authorities in Cologne have evacuated buildings within a 150m radius around the site, including two schools and a retirement home.

Christian Hillen, who has been at the site of the disaster to help rescue the documents, reports that 40 of the 65 medieval charters have been found so far.