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"An unprecedented cultural and historical disaster," is how Germans are describing the collapse of Cologne's historical archives on Tuesday.

Hundreds of thousands of documents and items, some dating back to the Middle Ages, were buried when the six-story building collapsed, and two people are missing and feared dead. The other employees and visitors escaped before the building crumbled to the ground.

The reason for the collapse is not yet clear. However, archives staff said they had warned the 38-year-old building was in poor condition. Some suggested that construction work on a new subway station nearby undermined the building's foundations.

The documents destroyed include the personal papers of the writer and Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boell, a native of Cologne and one of the most important German writers of the postwar era. The archives also contained items connected to Jewish composer and cellist Jacques Offenbach, who wrote the opera "Tales of Hoffman."

In addition, the building housed papers belonging to Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first postwar chancellor, who signed the reparations agreement with Israel; correspondences by the poet Paul Celan, author of "Death Fugue"; and papers of the writer Guenther Grass, also a Nobel laureate, and of Gottfried Boehm, a recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize; as well as the archive of a newspaper edited by Karl Marx.

The collapse caused immense damage to the 2,000-year-old city's historical documentation. Nearly 500,000 pictures of the city and its residents, 100,000 architectural drawings and plans, and tens of thousands of municipal documents, laws and bylaws were destroyed.

"It's an inconceivable loss," said Eberhard Illner, a former city archivist, to a local newspaper. "It's a catastrophe, not just for the city of Cologne but for the history of Europe."

According to the chairman of the German Archivists' Association, Robert Kretzschmar, the Cologne archive was "one of the most important in Europe. This is the loss of an immensely valuable and irreplaceable cultural asset."