State of emergency after train accident

Category: National Firefighting Team of the Year

Fire department: Volunteer Fire Department Bad Aibling, Bavaria (Germany)

9 February 2016, Carnival Tuesday at 06.52 a.m.: The incoming notification at the Integrated Dispatch Rosenheim had nothing to do with conventional missions usually received during Carnival. "MAN 1" (10 to 25 people injured) was the alarm keyword after a train accident on the single-track railway line in the Rosenheim district between Bad Aibling and Kolbermoor. Two passenger trains travelling at circa 100 km/hour had collided – probably due to clearance given to the slightly delayed train from Bad Aibling. Due to a curve in the track, the train engineers could not see the other oncoming train.

At the same time the alarm reached the Integrated Dispatch Rosenheim, an alarm was triggered for the Volunteer Fire Department Kolbermoor. This FD also has a rail rescue set just like Rosenheim's, which left the station only a few moments later than the FD Kolbermoor.

Extremely difficult conditions

The crash site was located at the foot of the approximately 70-metre-high, steep and densely wooded Mt. Ghersburg, and thus in very rugged terrain. It could only be reached by a narrow cycling trail along the Mangfall River dam. The impression that met Wolfram Höfler, Fire Department Commander in Bad Aibling, as well as the District Fire Chief, county fire authorities and emergency doctors when they arrived at the scene of the accident was devastating. The 107-metre train from Bad Aibling was derailed except for two cars. It had practically drilled itself into the 58-metre train from Kolbermoor. The shorter train was completely derailed. The front cars were ripped open; some were piled on top of each other. The rescuers could hardly see which car belonged to which train. As the team approached the site, injured people were climbing from the debris, people who had been thrown out of the cars lay next to the train, and cries for help from all directions reached the personnel. It was immediately clear to the Fire Department team that exploration and first aid had to take place simultaneously. After the first assessment, the alarm at 07:08 a.m. was raised to "MAN 2" (over 25 injured); location: ca. 25 people under open sky, several people still in the train, one car completely destroyed.

Colleagues prove their courage, endurance and experience

When Fire Department Commander Wolfram Höfler told his firefighters that the overhead line of the railway was not grounded and thus presented great danger to them, he allowed them to decide for themselves whether they wanted to stay at the accident site or not. Not one member of the Bad Aibling Fire Department decided to leave – all wanted to help. Likewise, they all worked highly professionally and with the greatest concentration. There was not even the "inevitable chaotic phase", which according to Höfler, often happens in such operations. A short time later, an emergency manager from the Deutsche Bahn and a member of the Volunteer Fire Department Bad Aibling who was trained in grounding the electrical line of a train, set grounds both in front of and behind the train. At 07:35 a.m., confirmation of the deactivation and grounding of the overhead line reached the Integrated Dispatch Rosenheim.

Despite this, parts of the train debris were still live; the hum of the accumulators was clearly perceptible. The enormous degree of the train's destruction made its shutdown impossible at first. The team members had to proceed with utmost caution in order not to damage any high-voltage power lines. Due to the risk of creating fire, they could not rely on separators, autogenous or plasma cutters – which would have been especially valuable for rescuing badly injured persons trapped in the material mix of aluminium, cast iron, hardened steel, plastics and wood.

An even greater challenge for the members of the Volunteer Fire Department was securing materials. Due to the difficult terrain, emergency vehicles could only come within about 1.3 km of the crash site. The result was that materials had to be brought in by foot – an extremely exhausting activity that brought many comrades to the brink of their physical limits as they transported hydraulic rescue devices, generators, scaffolding wood and first-aid equipment.

Outstanding teamwork

16 members of the Volunteer Fire Department Bad Aibling from HLF 20, RW 2 and LF 16 worked first at rescuing badly injured or trapped passengers. Rescue platforms were constructed and corridors were cut between the track and dam. The injured people were triaged as "severe" or "able to walk" and brought to the respective pick-up points. Personnel carriers and a large converted open-plan bus were in place to get them away from the site. The particular challenge for the driver of the large open-plan bus was backing it up over the narrow 1.1 km long path along the Mangfall River.
Thanks to the excellent cooperation between the local teams and the Integrated Dispatch Rosenheim, hospitals in southern Bavaria had already been notified to free up operation capacity. Assistance from the Austrian neighbours, the German Bundeswehr as well as lifeguards, water police and the THW were also immediately requested. To supply materials and transport persons via water, the flow rate in the canal of the Mangfall River had to be reduced by closing the weir. Even at reduced speed, however, the river was treacherous for the rescuers. Rescue by air was no less demanding. The fire departments, rescue services and police worked hand in hand in the tightest of spots.

The rescue of the last living person was extremely difficult and time-consuming. A 17-year-old boy had been sitting in the first car of the train from Rosenheim. He was so badly trapped under the torn-up train floor, compacted rows of seats and outer train wall that only a small part of his hair was initially visible. Using a hydraulic rescue apparatus, he was recovered after an hour. At 10:20 a.m. the announcement was made: "last person saved". So much stress had been placed on the Bad Aibling FD's hydraulic rescue devices, reciprocating saws and tools for simple technical assistance that they had to be immediately taken out of service after the accident.

Sympathy throughout Germany

Eleven dead, 24 severely injured and many persons with minor injuries – the train accident in Bavaria moved citizens throughout Germany. In addition to Bavarian politicians such as Prime Minister Horst Seehofer and Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann, Federal Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt also visited the crash site on the same day. Numerous Carnival parades and other events were cancelled; citizens donated food and warm drinks, and comprehensive crisis support offers were available for rescue team members and victims.

Fire Department Commander Wolfram Höfler himself talked to the press at 11 a.m. From this point on, he provided updates every 30 minutes on the further course of the rescue operation as well as the condition of injured and missing persons.

In addition to the excellent teamwork and communication among the forces involved, the fact that the accident occurred during a holiday was responsible for the fact that not more people were injured. Without the Bavarian Carnival holidays, the two trains would have been carrying approximately 400 to 500 persons – instead of only 120.