German city mourns deaths of 13 citizens in Concorde crash

MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany - Every year, a group of old friends from this western German city booked a trip together, often a cruise to sunny climates.

This year, the anticipation was greater than usual. The trip for six local couples and one boy included a flight on the ultra-fast Concorde from Paris to New York, where they planned to rendezvous with other traveling companions for a Caribbean cruise.

Now, the city of Moenchengladbach is grieving the loss of some of its leading citizens. The director of a business school. A furniture store owner. The head of a security company.

The signs of mourning are everywhere in this leafy, residential city in Germany's industrial heartland: flags flying at half-staff, a note on the door of the upscale furniture store advising it was closed for ''family reasons'' and the downcast look of the travel agent who booked 17 long-time customers on the Concorde that crashed.

''The city is not only houses, streets and a government. It also needs good relationships between people, and in that sense our city lost a lot with his death,'' said Dieter Beines, whose friendship with one of the victims, Kurt Kahle, goes back 25 years.

Kahle, 51, who died in the crash with his 37-year-old wife and 8 year-old son Michael, ran a private business school that carried his name and focused on continuing education - which Beines said was in keeping with Kahle's sense of community. The trip on the Concorde and frequent trips abroad reflected his sense of adventure.

''He was well-liked, always laughed and had a smile. He knew how to live life to the fullest,'' Beines said.

Officials refused to identify the victims of Tuesday's crash - including 96 Germans, two Danes and an Austrian booked on the cruise - but news trickled out in official announcements that reflected the victims' stature.

The German Track Federation issued a statement from its Darmstadt headquarters identifying two of the victims as former treasurer Jochen Appendrodt, 62, and his wife, saying ''German track has lost a dedicated champion of the concerns of the core Olympic sport.''

BMW in Munich confirmed that among the victims were Christian Eich, a 57-year-old engineer who was in charge of the company museum, his wife and two children, ages 8 and 10, and his wife's parents.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder spoke for the nation when he said ''Today, Germany is shaken,'' during a hastily arranged ecumenical service at the Christus Pavilion on the grounds of the World's Fair in Hanover, where the Cabinet was holding its last regular meeting before summer break.

And Interior Minister Otto Schily announced flags would be lowered to half-staff on all government buildings Thursday.

Communities touched by the tragedy already were finding ways to confront their grief. Crisis centers were set up at the airports in Munich and Duesseldorf, some 20 miles from Moenchengladbach. And the ship company owner that chartered the Concorde and owns the luxury liner planned a memorial service Thursday in the Baltic port town of Neustadt in Holstein.

But no single place experienced greater shock than this small city that was home to 13 of the victims, including, the local Rheinische Post reported, Harald Ruch, 45, owner of a building cleaning company and security service, and his 46-year-old wife; and Werner Tellmann, 69, a furniture-store owner, and his wife, Margarete, 66.

''He and his wife are dead,'' Michael Muehlenbroich, a police spokesman said somberly as he paged through the morning newspaper and the pictures of residents who died in the inferno.

''He and his wife are dead,'' he repeated, pointing at another photo. ''He and his wife are dead. It's terrible.''

Christian Stattrop, the manager of Clemens Travel Agency, which booked the trip, appeared stunned when he opened for business Wednesday. He had been up all night helping police and grief counselors confirm names and contact family members of the 17 dead, including four from neighboring towns.

''What can one feel when you get such a report about such longtime customers?'' he said.

Stattrop said the agency regularly booked trips for the loose group of friends and that the Concorde trip had added a certain cachet to this one. One customer, he wouldn't say who, was so excited that Stattrop found himself fielding frequent calls to check details and confirm the arrival of the tickets.

This is not the kind of city where folks regularly book a seat on the Concorde. Stattrop says he normally sells just a handful a year, but this package was particularly alluring: a supersonic flight over the Atlantic for a $1,500 surcharge - less than half the usual price - followed by a luxury 16-day cruise to Ecuador.

Fourteen of Stattrop's 31 customers opted to take a regular commercial flight to New York. They included three city officials, who had already arrived in New York when the news broke and were clearly shaken, said the mayor's chief of staff, Reinhold Steins.

So far, none of the 410 remaining passengers booked on the MS Deutschland have taken up the ship owner's offer to refund the trip. They set sail Thursday, the Moenchengladbach officials among them.

''The tour will go on. That's how it was organized, and to do something else is not reasonable,'' Steins said.

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment