The auto rampage in Trier on Tuesday is still fresh in the memory, condolences and messages have been laid at the Porta Nigra. One man is in police custody and many lives have been forever changed. Stephen Lowe writes as a parent and as a Trier resident on the city's 'darkest day'.
I cannot tell you the amount of times I have written this and how many times I've hit delete.
The words just don't seem to scan correctly.
It's not that I don't know what to write. It's that if I write what I am feeling, the emotions that are coursing through me, well, then this op-ed could not and should not be published.
The feeling I have today is a strange mix of anger and sadness, peppered with confusion and helplessness.
As one who's emotions vary wildly from minute to minute, I have to admit that I am struggling today.
My heart goes out to those families and friends of those who lost their lives and of course to those currently receiving medical treatment.
Trier's recent history is forever changed.
I don't know any of the people directly affected by what took place on Tuesday, or those... and I use this world lightly, fortunate to escape unscathed, and cannot imagine what they must be going through.
Trier is my home. My family's friends are from there. I've walked those bloodied cobbles.
I wrote about feeling guilt a few lines above.
I feel guilty for having felt relieved.
You see my children (ages 10 and 12) attend school no more than 100-120 metres from where the SUV was forcibly brought to a standstill.
For a brief moment on Tuesday afternoon the world swallowed my wife and I up. This was something happening that we would routinely see on the news channels. On the feeds.
News that has become scroll fodder.
News that lost importance. In some aspects.
This far-off news was happening, not quite on our doorstep, but in the places where we eat, shop, meet friends, take a stroll. It was still happening on news channels and in multiple search tabs but it was here.
And we could not reach our children.
We could not know that they were safe.
As the news broke - for me a simple copy pasted link from a panicked neighbour via WhatsApp - there was little information, other than the headlines.
Driver ploughs through crowd.
At first, there was but one news source picking up the story. Though their image showed a tarpaulin draped over what we could assume to be a dead body (the irresponsible decision to post such an image is another issue), it also displayed enough of the surroundings to place the location.
I knew where it was and my blood went cold.
I could not tell my wife immediately, I needed to be sure the news was real. That this was no prank. That #fakenews could be dismissed.
That I was not unnecessarily sharing with her my terror.
That is a word we shall come back to.
Then another Trier paper corroborated the story. Then the police.
The world spun for a moment. 'Multiple dead, many injuries'.
I felt sick.
Our sons were in the city. At school, yes, but as is common for the older kids, they would head to McDo's or sports shops, or just walk and talk during break.
My eldest had said he and a few class friends were going to the centre to buy Santa hats. 'After lunch', he said. My wife had encouraged him to go and have some fun.
I told my wife the news at the same time as I called the school. A few minutes had passed. Tickers were springing up. The news was coming in, in real time.
We tried to stay calm.
The boys were not answering their phones. Grey ticks were not going blue.
The school secretary answered just as my wife was frantically looking through increasing headlines, trying to get hold of the children. One dead, two dead...at least two dead.
Of course our kids were going to be fine. Of course they were. It couldn't be possible. This was not happening.
The secretary had been given specific instructions, she could only say that gates were closed, that the kids were following 'protocols'. No register had yet been taken, so they could not say allkids were safe. They simply did not know that this was the case.
Half-day schoolers had gone home. Some were picked up by parents. Some went by public transport. Those living nearby would walk, or go by bike.
Some kids' parents were stuck in traffic as the city came to a standstill. They would have listened to the updates on the car radio. They would have seen the flashing lights.
Heard the sirens.
10 minutes after the story broke, it was unclear if this was the action of one person, or part of a wider plan.
My youngest would later say, 'we stayed in the classroom, we thought there could be more people, maybe even with guns in the city'. He said this very calmly, as if it were normal. And, to a point it was and now is.
He's grown up seeing the Paris Attacks on TV, he saw the Koln attack, the shooting in Strasbourg, he knows of London Bridge, Hebdo, the pilot and the mountain.
Our eldest had been on the streets about an hour prior to the attacks. Often in the afternoons the full-day schoolers would go for a run, from the school, through the city and to the Palace Gardens, or they would do digital geocaching via phones in the city itself.
We could only hope that this was not one of those days.
We began texting friends who also had children at the school to see what they knew. To check their kids were safe.
The school had said we should not come to the city. That we had to keep away, as per police instruction.
They would call us when it was safe to do so.
And still there was no word from the kids.
I had written only 'Can you call me please?', as I did not know what they had been told at school. How much information had been passed along. As with letting my wife know, I did not want to cause alarm.
My wife and I did not know if they were afraid. If they were hurt.
And, yes, the unthinkable becomes thought.
After what felt like an age, finally I saw the ticks go blue and the phone lit up with my son's name. He was fine, he was safe. He was worried I would be angry as he'd sneaked his phone to the toilet to call me.
The school had told him what had happened. He had checked for his brother and he too was fine. They had begun messaging friends. Rumours had started. Terrible, horrible rumours, ones that children of that age should not have to consider. Men with knives and guns.
They would have heard the cars and commotion, the helicopter. They would have seen the teacher's reactions.
And still I could not scoop them up and get them home.
Back to where we had argued that morning over scarves and gloves, of 'packing your schoolbag, now, not in 5 mins!' Of 'brush your flipping teeth and wash your flipping face!'
Of getting them away from what they were experiencing.
My wife and I continued to watch the updates. The terror unfolding. That word again, the horror.
News came in that the man was apprehended. Had been rammed off the road. Conflicting information on what direction he had taken and where he had been stopped. And then one of the official images showed his car at the junction before the children's school.
Now, of course there was nothing to suggest that this 51-year-old white German man would have headed that way.
But it does not stop the fear that it could have. That it might have.
It did not change that this man had driven through Trier's pedestrian zone at high speeds and had allegedly zigzagged into people as he raced through the city.
People fleeing in terror.
That word again. We are not supposed to say it. Police posts on social media pleaded that images and videos were not shared, that assumptions were not made. As soon as something like this happens, blame only flows in one direction. And it's never in the direction of the whites.
Police, presumably wanted to avoid misinformation causing racial tensions and thereby recriminations. Trier is already finely balanced in terms of prejudice. Yet, there were no calls of Terrorism. Lokalo.de did run a tentative headline with 'Act of terrorism?' for a short while, it was they who had posted the first image.
But, as soon as it was clear that the murderer was white, headlines changed. Tone changed. This was a troubled man from the area. Under the influence of alcohol.
In my mind there is no difference. You can attach religious or political ideologies and make yourselves feel safer, if that works for you. This person, this white middle-aged man floored his accelerator and drove into people.
This was no accident.
He ran over a pram.
The Christmas Market should be taking place at this time of year, had there not been a cancellation due to Covid, the number of fatalities could have been far higher. But also, as it has been revealed, there would have been additional security in place if the Market had gone ahead.
Whats and ifs.
After we collected the children from the school, a little later than planned, my wife and I discussed how such a thing could have happened. How the vehicle made it into the zone.
And we said 'thank goodness our boys are OK'.
But, now as I write this, I'm choking back tears again. Others aren't OK!
It is not OK.
We told the kids that everything is fine. That yes it was a horrible day but they were safe. Mummy and Daddy would look after them.
And as we settled the kids off to bed it came hammering home. We had lied to our children. We had told them that such a thing would never happen in Trier.
That these things only occur elsewhere.
And this morning when I awoke at 4.45 am to read the news that the 9-month-old was in fact 9-weeks-old and the 45-year-old-man was the infant's father, and one of the injured was the mother.
Another was the one-and-half-year-old sibling.
Well, I cried.
I was in tears in the car driving to work. I then sat numb at the desk.
I struggled to operate the basics of the site management. I just kept thinking of the child. Of Trier Mayor Wolfram Leibe's voice cracking in that interview, his description of seeing the shoe.
And the infinite horror of that being my wife. My kids.
And I am so relieved that it isn't.
Yet feel so guilty of that fact.
Through all of this thread, I am aware that you may be thinking; why are you making this about you? That's sincerely not my aim. I just felt compelled to write how those moments felt as a parent unable to be there for my children.
If I ask of you just one thing, pull your kids close tonight. Pull them into your arms.
Ruffle their hair.
Put away the laptop and phone.
Leave the dishes.
Tell your kids you love them.