Fatal Fit: The 1961 Hamburg S-Bahn Disaster

Background

The location of Hamburg relative to other cities in Europe.

In addition to national and international train connections making Hamburg one of Germany’s main railway hubs the city is also crisscrossed by various public transport systems, utilizing buses, ferries, the subway (“Hochbahn“, a mixture of underground and elevated rail), the AKN (a rapid transit system focused on the northwestern suburbs) and S-Bahn (an urban/suburban rapid transit service similar to the subway). The latter 3 alone have a rail network of 380km/236mi (as of 2020), not counting the track used for national and international trains. Until 1978 Hamburg also had a tram, improving the coverage by public transport even more.

The site of the accident seen from above, the train came from the north (top of the image).

The trains involved

Every end car held four electric motors fed from a “third rail” next to the track at 1200V DC, producing 1280kW/1717hp. This gave the 111 metric ton trains quite rapid acceleration and a top speed of 100kph/62mph, more than enough for the mostly fairly short distances between stations. At 65.52m/215ft in length each train offered 198 seats in a 2-class configuration (second-class seats in the control cars, first class in the middle car), and passengers couldn’t move between cars without leaving the train at a station.

An ET 170-train identical to the one involved in the accident, photographed in 1960.

Parked just southeast of Berliner Tor Station (“Berlin Gate station”, not to be confused with the “Brandenburg Gate”/Brandenburger Tor in Berlin) was a departmental/maintenance train of unknown configuration. The rear cars carried massive double-T steel girders meant for a new nearby bridge located just 200m/656ft from the site of the accident. The girders slightly protruded from the rear car, nothing unusual for a construction/maintenance train. At the time of the accident the train carried a single person, the driver, in the locomotive up front.

The accident

At 10:35pm the train stops at Berliner Tor Station, only a handful of passengers disembark. Working in the signal box at the eastern end of the station is Mister Messer, a 57 years old dispatcher with years of experience. Just minutes before the ET 170 arrives a departmental train has passed through the station into storage to the south of the station, near the construction site it is meant to supply the next day. The exact plan is unknown, but it is assumed that Mister Messer was meant to divert the passenger train onto the left hand track upon exiting the station, letting it overtake the parked departmental train. Instead he follows the usual schedule, a routine repeated every few minutes, and turns the signal at the end of the eastern end of the station green. The conductor ensures that passengers have finished entering and leaving the train and that the doors closed and, seeing the green signal, permits the train to depart the station at 10:37pm. At this point the train is doomed to crash.

Leaving the station the six-car train accelerates, even full of people it quickly picks up speed as it starts to go around a right hand turn on the elevated track. At 10:38pm, less than sixty seconds after leaving the station, ET 170 strikes the rear car of the stopped departmental train at 70kph/44mph, approximately 340m/1115ft outside the station. Residents living next to the track are woken up by a deafening crash, the sounds of tearing and grinding metal. The steel girders that are loaded onto and protruding past the end of the rear car impale the passenger train, nearly filling the interior wall to wall and floor to roof while the flatbed car they were loaded on cuts between the frame and body of the train, shaving its own wheels off on the frame of the ET 170. The girders obliterate or compress everything in their path. Walls, seats, the flooring and the passengers.

The train driver doesn’t stand a chance, he is killed the moment his train hits the obstacle, along with 27 passengers. Over 100 passengers are injured, 57 of which severely. The driver of the departmental train escapes nearly uninjured, he jumps out of his locomotive at the last second when he realizes what is about to happen. By the time the trains come to a stop the girders are stuck 13m/43ft deep in the passenger train, giving a sight one can’t help but compare to a sleeve.

The leading car after the crash, the flatbed car’s frame and cargo are bulging the walls.

Aftermath

Among the first professional responders is Mister Peters, a firefighter, then 21 years old. In a 2016 interview he recalls finding and even talking to survivors, only to watch them bleed to death as they got freed when pieces of the wreckage pinching them in place were lifted/removed. He recalls an air of desperation, the responders want to help but can’t. They didn’t have heavy tools, some of his colleagues started attacking the train with pocket knives or bare hands. Eventually the DB (German national railway) sends a recovery crew with angle grinders, finally the responders make progress. But the sparks from the tools set fire to the fabric seats, trapped survivors beg them to stop. Firefighters spray water on the train, leading the same people to panic thinking they will down on dry land. The decision is made to not use the angle grinders, instead crowbars, axes and saws are used to take the remains of the train apart. Progress is slow, survivors are recovered and taken away one by one. Some only get to leave the wreckage by leaving limbs behind. Firefighters use ropes or form human chains to get survivors to the cars waiting at street level. There aren’t enough stretchers available, so police officers and civilians lift up survivors and carry them to the ambulances in their arms. At 3am the site starts to quiet down, screams turn to whimpers and noises from the equipment used gain the upper hand. At 4:45 the last survivor is pulled from the wreckage, by 5am the rescue effort is officially re-designated as a recovery operation. By that time Mister Messer is already under arrest. The accident is Hamburg’s darkest peacetime day, the worst tragedy to hit the city since the “Great Fire of Hamburg” claimed 51 lives in 1842. The city is in shock, the senate orders flags on all buildings to be flown at half-mast.

In the early morning hours Mister Peters returns to the fire station just 1km/0.6mi linear distance from the site. There is no psychological support for responders, the men are left to deal with the sights on their own. He lights a cigarette but throws it away unused, he recalls that smoking felt “too normal”. The men sit around for a few hours, drinking coffee and talking about the tragedy they just witnessed. Therapy for responders just isn’t an option at the time, the men are expected to “deal with it.” Even 50 years later Peters said he can’t forget some sights and sounds, he says it’s their powerlessness that he can’t handle, he was there to save lives and had to just stand around and watch people die.

Police officers and firefighters using ropes to lower patients down the embankment.

Investigators start examining the remains of both trains during the night, as far as they can tell from the wreckage neither train had any defect. The conductor at the station is quickly relieved of any guilt, it was not part of his job to question the dispatcher’s decision to clear the train for departure. Hamburg’s S-Bahn system is fitted with a safety-system to keep trains from proceeding into occupied block zones (defined sections of track, designed to keep trains at a safe distance). The night of the accident this system had been turned off to allow shunting work with and storage of the departmental train. According to records and statements the dispatcher was made aware of this, as well as of the train being stored outside his station.

It quickly becomes clear that Mister Messer had simply forgotten about the unusual train, falling back into the day to day routine of the normal S-Bahn trains. He is to blame for the accident, the erroneous dispatch was an act of fatal negligence. Mister Messer is put on trial in February of 1963, in the end he is sentenced to just one year in jail for negligent manslaughter, set out to probation. It has to be noted that German law doesn’t “add up” sentences, committing a crime with a 2 year sentence and one with a 1 year sentence will give you 2 years, not 3. He never manages to get over what he did and caused that night of the accident, despite several stays at mental hospitals he struggles with guilt for the rest of his life. Some sources saying that he not only never worked his old job again but never worked again at all. 20 years of experience, not a single error, a flawless record. Ended in the most sudden and tragic way. Coworkers say the man in court in 1963 was a different man than the one they knew, he was older, grayer, more fragile.

Mister Messer headed into court in 1963, trying to shield himself from the journalists.

A year after the accident Hamburg is hit with the North Sea flood of 1962, eclipsing the train crash in the scale of the destruction. Yet still, it’s not forgotten. There is no memorial, not at the site and not at the nearby station. In a recent interview (linked below) the head of the fire station Mister Peters belonged to recalls stories that were told about the accident and its aftermath, how a lot of the firefighters involved fell ill for weeks or quit altogether, unable to do their job. Mister Peters has since retired, but both his son and grandson became firefighters. He says they get better training, have much better equipment. And most importantly, by the late 90s psychological support for responders becomes commonplace. The camaraderie is still there, the support among firefighters, but having external support when needed is a great help. Mister Peters sought help on his own, years after the accident, when he decided getting rid of nightmares was more important than “manning up”.

The last ET 170, by that point renumbered DB Series 470, has its last day of service on the 17th of December 2002. Unfairly, it was retired quietly after a defect. Three trains survive to this day in private hands, two of which are operational. Since the accident no one has been killed or seriously injured aboard a public transport train in Hamburg. Conductors on the S-Bahn are a thing of the past, a green signal is now a direct sign that the train can depart.

DB 470 128, one of two operational ET 170s left and the last one to have been in service, photographed in Hamburg in November 2018.

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.