Remembering the eighties
In 1998, the late August 27th and 28th weekend saw two major events in southern Germany and one of them turning into a capital disaster. I was a young teenage boy and this weekend was meant to become an exciting last summer vacations weekend as my dad took me and my older brother on a 2 days long journey with the intention to visit both these events.
Day one: Saturday, Aug 27th 1988
On August, 27th, very early in the morning, my father, my elder brother and myself hopped into the car for a journey that should leave impressions carved so deeply into my soul, making them appear as they happened yesterday even today - 30 years later. Our first target was the city of Schweinfurt in Bavaria, Germany, where the 1988 Monsters of Rock festival was going to take place. These festivals, taking place in many large European and US cities were highly popular from the late seventies into the early nineties, often attracting six digit numbers of heavy metal and rock music fans. A Monsters of Rock festival usually featured a huge main stage where multiple bands performed on a single day, forming a live gig that lasted 6-8 hours. Later, Monsters Of Rock extended into South America while it gradually died off in Europe and the U.S only to get resurrected about 25 years later.
There was always a main act performing at the end of the show and it was typically one of the big rock or metal bands of that era. Kiss, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Deep Purple, David Lee Roth, Van Halen, Guns’n Roses, Whitesnake and many more all have at least one appearance at a Monsters Of Rock festival. My older brother was a big hard rock and heavy metal fan back these days and he had been on huge festivals before, but for me it was the first such event. At 14, I was probably still too young for rock concerts, but I had seen Deep Purple live on their Perfect Strangers tour a year before and was already a big metalhead at that age. The influence of my brother was clearly showing.
I do not remember much of the drive, because I slept through most of it, but I know the 400 mile drive took us about 7-8 hours and we arrived in Schweinfurt around noon. The situation was “chaotic” and that’s quite some understatement. Close to 50.000 metal fans do have some impact, even on a medium sized city and we heard, some savage idiots caused chaos and mayhem the evening before, making it into the headlines on many German news networks. There were rumors of deaths among vandalizing fans, but later we thankfully learned, they were false alerts, probably launched by press which has taken an ambivalent stance towards the festival. There was quite some opposition among the people of the city and many politicians would have banned the festival from taking place in their city if they had been among those with the power to decide. The reputation of metal and hard rock fans was mediocre at best, and sadly, some idiots again helped with consolidating that poor image.
To us, it appeared peaceful, but a lot of people were already totally drunk and/or stoned at noon, long before the first band was scheduled to play. I was totally excited, because I was going to see one of my favorite bands, Iron Maiden, for the first time ever in a live gig, but because of my age, alcohol was a no-go. My dad was usually a tolerant person, but this was something he didn’t want to see and he told my older brother to “watch it”.
My dad didn’t want to attend the gig as metal was never among his favorites in music, but he had planned to find a bed and some food at a small hotel in a nearby village, owned by an old friend of him and we agreed on a meeting point on a large parking space near the festival grounds later in the evening.
I remember many impressions from that gig […] Just a couple days before he event it had been announced that Megadeath had to drop out and their position was to be filled by a less popular band called Testament. […]
When Iron Maiden finally went off stage, it was already dark, but I don’t remember the exact time. It took us at least one hour to reach the meeting point where our father was already waiting for us, even though it wasn’t a long walk, but there were sooo many people, many of them totally drunk and still headbanging on their way out. It was a really huge mess. My brother, tall and fairly well in shape, looked after me, so it wasn’t a problem.
When we finally reached the agreed meeting point on the parking space, my dad was there, waiting. He looked fresh and told us he had slept well and agreed with his friend at the hotel to get us all some special service in form of late night food. I remember, I realized I had not eaten anything since the breakfast at home, some 18 hours or so earlier. The excitement had taken over and let me forget basic needs, I guess.
We arrived at our father’s friend’s hotel around midnight (I guess so, could have been later) after a relatively short drive of which I do not remember much. The hotel, I remember quite clearly though; It was small (often called a pension in Germany) with only a couple of rooms, ran by my father’s friend and his wife, both of whom I had never met before. They were friendly and humorous folk and the food was excellent, but strangely, the thing I remember most is, how extremely tired I was. I had not been up for an extended period of time, maybe just 14 hours and had slept enough the night before, but I was quite exhausted from the gig.
Soon after we finished this midnight diner and took a shower at around 2am, my father told us we had about 2 hours left, until we had to get ready for the next stage of our journey, a 200 mile travel to the city of Ramstein in the Rhineland area, where the Flugtag 88 was going to to take place on the US Air Force base. Enough time for a short nap, which we both thankfully took even though I knew, I was going to sleep in the car for most of the upcoming drive.
Day two: Sunday, Aug 28th 1988
The drive from Schweinfurt to Ramstein would normally take approximately 3 hours, but we needed at least five, possibly more, because of major traffic jams around the Air Force base. Like the day before, I had slept most of the time during the drive. My brother, who later told me, he didn’t sleep so well, occupied the front seat next to my dad, so I had all the backseats of our comfortable series 5 BMW for myself - nice and spacey enough for a good sleep.
The Flugtag was a huge event with more than 200.000 spectators expected and probably about 300.000 attending - quoted numbers varied greatly, some claim up to 350.000. I can only say, there were massive crowds of cars and people everywhere on the base, which is huge. The almost flawless weather - like the day before, the 28th was a beautiful late summer day with temperatures up to 30℃ (85℉), steel blue, clear sky with little clouds and excellent visibility - probably attracted even more people. My father later said, the weather on that day was any pilot’s dream and the perfect weather to fly under VMC1, which is what pilots need to do when flying aerial displays. We finally arrived at the parking space on site around 11am; a lot later than we had planned, but while we did expect traffic problems, the reality was much, much worse than what we had anticipated. The show had already opened its doors, but the most interesting part, the flying air show displays, was about to start around noon, so there was still enough time left to walk around, get some burgers and french fries, visit the aircraft in the static ground exhibition and enjoy a beautiful, hot, late summer day.
At around 3pm - the flight displays were still in progress - we decided, we had no intention to be among the first huge crowds heading towards the parking space(s) soon after the show’s end, because we expected a traffic jam even worse than the one in the morning. My father had taken days off from work and my brother and me were still in our summer breaks from university and school so we had plenty of time available for a relaxed trip home and no need to rush anything. Also, my dad wanted to take better pictures from the soon-to-be flying Italian team and therefore decided it would be better to leave the densely packed crowd.
So we made our way out of the masses and settled down in a lesser crowded area. We sat down into the grass and watched the still ongoing aircraft display teams. My dad took pictures with his Nikon and I remember my brother was a bit annoyed, because his Sony Video-8 camcorder was out of battery power and he had not listened to our dad telling him he might want to save a bit for the Italian team.
At around 3:30pm, the Italian display team Frecche Tricolori was announced as the highlight of the show and the last flying display team for the day. My dad told us to pay extra attention, because they were awesome and the only team flying with 10 aircraft. The show was indeed spectacular as promised and we watched for minutes from our position at least 200 meters away from the place, that was soon going to turn into hell on earth. I later realized that it was pure luck we were able to leave the scene physically unharmed, because about an hour or so before, we had been near the ice cream truck that got fully hit by the cartwheeling aircraft and we had been close to the place where the white station wagon was parked near the perimeter road. That place took a direct hit and people standing there had little chance to survive. We had seen all these places that got turned into a patch of scorched earth within seconds.
So we watched that big heart painted into the steel blue sky, the maneuver that was announced to mean love and peace and was meant to be the final stunt in the show of the Italian display team. At this time, still nobody even remotely thought that love and peace would soon turn into war-like conditions and dozens of people dying instantly without ever knowing what hit them.
What then happened, I do not fully remember. I do remember a strange, metallic sound, followed by some kind of “thud”. It was not a very loud sound, at least not the loud “bang” one might expect from a mid-air crash of two aircraft at high speed. Others claim, the sound was in fact a loud bang, but maybe they were closer2 or maybe it was loud and my memories are not working as they should. I also do remember the yellow-orange fire ball and billowing black smoke and I believe, I felt heated air and some kind of pressure wave that hurt my ears. I also believe, my father let loose a loud vulgar curse before everything started to turn into a nightmare, but he said later, he wasn’t able to remember. He, being a pilot (although not a military one), might have realized that they were going to crash mid-air. Or maybe, it wasn’t real and I fantasized. I really cannot tell.
And I remember lots of people, including ourselves, running away from the huge, black smoke column, many of them screaming, but my dad quickly realized there was no imminent danger for us and he yelled at us to stop and stick together. I then looked around noticing two areas of rising smoke and almost immediately, it became clear something terrible must have happened. The Italian display team was gone from the skies and it appeared unusually quiet, probably just an impression after all the noise from 10 jet aircraft flying overhead at low altitudes only minutes before. My father and older brother both looked very worried and I remember my dad staring in disbelief at the black smoke cloud in the not-so-far distance, probably realizing that one aircraft must have had crashed into the crowd.
The decision to move away from the area that became the epicenter of that terrible accident probably saved us from a lot of harm, and possibly saved our lives.
I often asked myself what would have happened had we been staying near the white station wagon in the middle of the massive crowd that had built up around the ice cream truck and the nearby static aircraft displays? Would I still be here to write these lines? I do not know, because from all the pictures and videos and my blurred memory concerning our exact position, I cannot tell whether we had been in the path of the crashing aircraft. The more I tried to figure it out in the past, often discussing it with my dad and my brother, the more I believe we were not directly standing in the path. The most accurate guess I can do - and that would be consistent with my father’s view - would be near the lower right corner of the picture above about 20 meters towards the camera position - with a fairly generous margin for error. Whether this spot would have been safe or not, I cannot tell. Given the fact that many victims died from trauma caused by being directly hit with debris let me conclude, the place around the impact site was far from safe, even for those not standing in the path of the cartwheeling aircraft.
The place we had settled down was safe though. Not only was it far enough away from the place of impact, it was also located more or less perpendicular in relation to the track of the doomed aircraft that went down 50 meters in front of the crowd. So no debris headed in our direction.
When I look back, I’m not even sure if everything was real. If there weren’t for the many videos, pictures, reports from other people, which - as a rational thinking being - I accept as being real, I would have doubts. Sometimes, it feels like a bad dream, or a Hollywood movie. The images of the large fire pretty much looked like from an action movie and some of these pictures are still surprisingly clear in my mind, even though everything happened 30 years ago.
Other pictures are blurred and I remember very little from what happened after the disaster. At some point, we reached our car and there was a massive traffic chaos, but I cannot remember details from our drive home which took us many hours, probably 10 or more. I only know we arrived the next day, early in the morning. Later I was told it could have been some kind of mild shock. Even I was only fourteen years old, I very likely realized that a lot of people got hurt without seeing reports on TV or in newspapers. The chaos, the screams, the smoke clouds, the smell of burned stuff, the lots of uniformed guys, some armed, the many ambulances and helicopters, the overall noise level, it all might have contributed.
What I clearly remember is my mom when we finally arrived home - she was in tears and couldn’t stop crying for hours. Even though my dad called her on phone as soon as we found a working phone box (there were no mobile phones back then) and told her we were all fine and heading home, she probably didn’t realize that we didn’t get hurt until we finally arrived. She had seen the reports on TV before my dad called her, because finding a phone on site was impossible and we had to wait until we were able to leave the chaos and finally found a phone at a Autobahn service station. She knew we were there and she had seen the dreadful images on TV and heard that dozens died and hundreds got injured - that was enough.
Naturally, witnessing such a dreadful event at the age of 14, does leave some, that is to be expected. I realized soon after the event that we were just lucky enough to get away unharmed, like hundred-thousands others, but I still feel sad thinking about the many people who were injured or died on that day. One particularly strong memory of that day centers around two teenage girls, probably sisters or close friends in the area of the crash near the ice cream truck we had been around maybe an hour and a half before. They were pretty young girls, about my age and we exchanged some shy smiles and had we met elsewhere, we may have approached each other - who knows, but this is what young boys and girls sometimes do when they meet. Until today, I have no idea what happened to them. Did they leave that area like we did and escaped unharmed like us or did their luck run out sooner than ours? I wish I could know.
Thanks to my dad, I was able to deal with the impressions and the aftermath of the disaster in a fairly rational manner. As I already mentioned, my dad is a professional airline pilot (now retired) and because of this, his take on aviation disasters was different and more professional than the ordinary public view of journalists and mass media. Thanks to him, I understood, even at my young age, that some terrible, but otherwise extremely rare and unlikely event had happened and his rational approach helped me to realize that said event was no reason to develop fears and shall not take any influence on my decisions and overall path of life. A tragic event, that killed many and injured hundreds more, many of them so severe that it took them decades to recover and some never fully recovered.
However, I also do realize how easy it is to talk about not being traumatized and being able to deal with a terrible event when one was lucky enough to walk away unharmed, thus turning the event into a not-so-terrible personal experience. I do, even 30 years later, realize - and that I have stated before - that we were lucky and for that I’m thankful. I also do not want to make claims about how I can understand those who were harmed or lost loved ones and never got over it, because I most certainly can not understand it. I too have lost loved ones in my life and thus know how hard it can be, even though these losses were natural events and did not happen unexpected (which I guess, makes it a bit easier to bear with them) and were not the result of a terrible disaster.
In aviation, visual meteorological conditions (or VMC) is an aviation flight category in which visual flight rules (VFR) flight is permitted—that is, conditions in which pilots have sufficient visibility to fly the aircraft maintaining visual separation from terrain and other aircraft. ↩
Our position was about 200 meters from the point of impact, so probably 300 meters or more from the actual mid-air crash. ↩