Berlin a Day After the Attack: Eerily Quiet and Deserted

After the truck slammed into it, the beating heart of the city morphed into a sterile zone with shocked locals and tourists congregating nearby.

A woman mourns at a makeshift memorial where a truck crashed into a Christmas market a day earlier, Berlin, Germany, December 20, 2016.
Odd Andersen, AFP

After the truck attack Monday night, the Kurfürstendamm, one of Berlin’s busiest shopping streets, was eerily quiet and deserted. Ku’damm, as the famous street is known, had been crammed with people that night, as it has been every evening leading up to Christmas. Now tourists, journalists and local residents congregated nearby, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

The tens of thousands of colorful holiday lights still cast their glow on the small number of passersby, some of whom were finally allowed to cross the street and return to their homes. A lone flower-seller was still trying to make a go of it.

A newspaper vendor suddenly appeared, hawking the latest edition of the daily Bild, just over two hours after the attack. Behind him, one of the giant electronic billboards on one of the many department stores in the area replaced its usual enticing ads with a somber announcement about the terrible event that just occurred.

The Brandenburg Gate is illuminated in the colors of the German flag in Berlin, Germany, the day after a truck ran into a crowded Christmas market and killed several people.
Markus Schreiber/AP

A bunch of young people approached a group of journalists who were photographing the Christmas market from a distance, and disconcertingly asked if they knew where to find a good nightclub. The foreigners couldn’t help them.

As hours passed, the city seemed to be returning to itself, as clichéd as that sounds. But just a short while before, it was a whole different story: The area that is the beating heart of West Berlin, with a bustling holiday market that’s especially popular with tourists, had been transformed into a sterile zone to which no one was permitted access. All the surrounding shops and malls were closed and empty. Dozens of people gathered opposite the police barrier erected near the train station, trying to get some crumbs of information from each other.

One person who stood out was Ralph, standing alone, leaning over the sidewalk railing with a black stocking cap on his head, not speaking with anyone. Ralph is 54 and has lived in this neighborhood for 20 years. With a shaky voice, he related that he’d been at the market with friends, just like every other day in the month leading up to Christmas. It’s their regular ritual, he said: meeting for a drink there on their way home from work.

They were standing on the side that's close to Ku’damm when they suddenly heard shouting and saw a wave of people running from the other side of the market, on Budapester Strasse, where the No. 100 tourist bus goes. Hearing someone yelling that there was a bomb, Ralph and his friends immediately dropped their glasses of hot wine and started running too. Ralph made it to his home, five minutes from the square, turned on the TV and saw that there was no longer any bomb threat. None of his friends was hurt, but he felt compelled to go back to the site.

A market salesman is comforted as he arrives at the Christmas market the day after the deadly truck ramming, Berlin, Germany, December 20, 2016.
Tobias Schwarz, AFP

Two teenage tourists near him were telling another friend about how lucky they’d been. Their hotel was nearby, the young women said, and they would pass through the market every evening on their way out somewhere. On this particular evening they had been slightly delayed, and were unaware of the attack until one of them received a message from her brother asking if she was okay. They stayed in their room for another hour before venturing out to see what happened.

Not far away, some people were crowding around a boy of about 15, who was showing them a video on his phone that he said he took in the market right after the truck attack. It showed a lot of blood on the sidewalk and a body sprawled out. Another young man next to him shouted, “Whoever wants the video – 100 euros!” Raucous bidding was getting underway.

Just then, journalists were given the okay to cross the barrier and get closer to the scene. There was the silent tableau: the black truck, where it had come to a stop, with one of the Christmas food stalls crushed beneath it; dozens of holiday decorations strewn about; and a solitary, star-shaped lamp that had sat atop the wrecked stall, lying on the pavement.