History of Europe

When a sandstorm turned into a disaster

It is an accident that remains in the collective memory:Ten years ago, a huge cloud of sand blinded drivers on the A19 near Kavelstorf, not far from Rostock. 85 vehicles collide, eight people die.

by Janine Kuehl

On this Friday afternoon, April 8, 2011, weekend traffic gradually begins on the two-lane A 19 between Berlin and Rostock. At Kavelstorf near the Rostock-Laage junction, the road leads down into a depression. Suddenly it's there:a dense cloud of sand blocks the driver's view. Those involved describe what happened afterwards as a "yellow towel" or "a blanket that lies on the windscreen". Visibility is only ten meters. In both directions, a total of 85 vehicles crash into and into each other, sometimes several times, and become wedged.

Explosions in dangerous goods transporter - Eight people burned

Many of those involved in the accident were trapped in their vehicles as the fire broke out. 17 cars and three trucks catch fire, including a dangerous goods transporter with highly flammable hydrogen peroxide in the tank. There are always explosions here, which massively impede the deployment of the fire brigade. "It was like being hit by a grenade," recalls emergency doctor Dr. Burkhard Hinz. "You felt like you were in a war." Putting out the fire alone takes several hours. Only then can the rescue workers get to the trapped people - for eight of them any help comes too late. They were burned in their vehicles.

Rescue in a sandstorm - 250 helpers on the A19

When the first emergency services arrive by helicopter, sand is still obstructing visibility and making rescue work more difficult. Around 250 helpers from the fire brigade, rescue workers and police are on duty - under chaotic circumstances. "There was a lot of screaming from the injured. I had to force myself to see what was happening in the accident and not to help a nearby patient," said Hinz, who was supposed to be the first emergency doctor on site to get an overview. "This event was the worst thing I have experienced in my life." At up to 100 kilometers per hour, the wind whips up sand and farmland from the surrounding fields, which have dried up completely after weeks of drought. Two tankers spray the fields with water to improve visibility. Nevertheless, the sandstorm lasts for several hours.

Millions of damage on the A19

The heat from the fire caused major damage to the highway's asphalt surface.

Numerous ambulances and six rescue helicopters take the 130 injured to hospitals in Rostock, Güstrow and Bad Doberan. While the A 19 towards Berlin is cleared by the evening, the clean-up work on the other side will take three days. The THW illuminates the scene of the accident so that the clean-up work can continue at night. The fire has severely damaged the asphalt, so that the roadway has to be repaired extensively. The serious collision caused damage in the millions. A temporary speed limit will be lifted after a few days.

Sandstorm triggers environmental debate

Large areas of arable land, drought and wind lead - as here on a road between Stralsund and Greifswald - to a serious sandstorm. An avoidable event?

On the one hand, the processing of the pile-up is about whether and how such sandstorms can be prevented in the future. The accident site is in a depression, flanked by large agricultural areas. The strong wind that prevailed on the day of the accident had blown up the upper layer of soil and blown it across the motorway. Environmental protection organizations such as the BUND complained about the lack of field hedges, which could at least have stopped the sand a little. In addition, the agricultural industry has allowed the humus content in the soil to drop too much. As a result, it dries out more.

Politicians are calling for changes in agriculture after the disaster. Voices are being raised that blame the farmers. The Federal Minister of Agriculture at the time, Ilse Aigner (CSU), called for compliance with the specifications for areas at risk of erosion. However, the debate about the risks of agricultural monocultures remains largely without consequences. The public prosecutor decides not to investigate the farmers. What remains are warnings on the radio about sandstorms.

Legal investigation:are there culprits?

The force of nature sandstorm is the trigger for the catastrophe. But to what extent are those involved in the accident themselves to blame for the extent of the disaster? From which vantage point was the cloud of sand visible? Could those involved have reacted and braked faster?

Reconstruction of the course of the accident

After years of forensic and legal investigations, experts from the testing company Dekra are able to reconstruct the course of the accident in detail. The public prosecutor's office believes that they can identify the culprits using state-of-the-art simulation software. At the request of the authorities, a total of seven penal orders were issued in mid-2014:four cases of manslaughter, two cases of endangering road traffic and one case of negligent bodily harm.

All penalty orders refer to the accident in the direction of Rostock, where there was significantly greater damage than in the opposite direction. Based on witness statements and the results of experts, the public prosecutor assumes that the cloud of sand could already be seen from around 650 meters and that the accused did not comply with the visual travel requirement.

victim or perpetrator? Trial for involuntary manslaughter

A schematic representation shows how the sandstorm wrapped the A 19 in sand and dust before Kavelstorf.

Kirsten Ettmeier from Brandenburg is one of those involved in the accident who received a penalty order for negligent homicide and raises an objection - it comes to trial. Ettmeier spoke very openly about the accident and her view of the question of guilt for the NDR documentary talk format Die Scar. She was seriously injured in the accident. As she got out of her car, she was hit by a truck. She suffered multiple broken bones in her arms, pelvis and legs and is still receiving physiotherapeutic treatment today. Ettmeier sees himself as a victim of the accident - and at the same time bears the burden of the fact that two people died as a result of his actions. But does that make her guilty?

"All I can remember is this wall"

According to the accident reconstruction, Ettmeier drove into the vehicle in front of her at 78 to 94 kilometers per hour, triggering a chain reaction and, according to the court, is partly to blame for the death of a couple who later burned in their car. Contrary to other witness statements, Ettmeier states that the cloud of sand appeared directly in front of her car:"I can only remember this wall that suddenly appeared. As if a blanket was thrown over the windshield." That's why she couldn't brake sooner. "You can't hold one person responsible for a natural disaster," she says.

The district court of Rostock sees it differently. Based on the accident reconstruction and witness statements, it is concluded that Kirsten Ettmeier was "at the beginning of a causal chain". The court sees Ettmeier's own injuries as mitigating circumstances and sentenced the then 54-year-old to a suspended fine of 9,000 euros in July 2015. Ettmeier herself continues to look at her role with ambivalent feelings:"I still don't have the feeling that I'm to blame for the death of two people," she says, but suffers greatly from the psychological consequences of the accident:"I'll come with it myself not clear that people died." Can a victim also be a perpetrator? "You can be both a victim and a perpetrator," said Judge Ralf Schröder. "And you can definitely be more of a victim than a perpetrator."

Truck driver fined

With eight nails for eight fatalities, a wooden cross on the A19 commemorates the victims of the mass collision with serious consequences.

In another trial in September 2015, a truck driver was fined 3,600 euros for negligently killing a driver. By driving into another truck, he was responsible for the death of a driver, which is also the reason given here.

A wooden cross at the accident site commemorates the deceased. There is no speed limit or hedges to protect against sandstorms.