"In this chaos I was looking for my five-year-old daughter Nadine and found her burning on the ground. I tried desperately to stifle the flames. But I myself was badly injured, and my clothes were soaked in kerosene from the downed machine. With my bare hands, I barely had a chance against the flames on Nadine's body. So it was only with great difficulty that I managed to staunch the flames, especially as my hands caught fire again and again. In between I kept looking for my wife Carmen. However, among the many burned, it was not possible to recognize her, because everything was black, so one could not even orient oneself on garments. I tried to focus on my little daughter, picking her up and hugging her because her clothes were still a bit on fire. She did not stop to scream. Suddenly, a few Americans came – I do not remember, whether soldiers or civilians – who held me, while one of them took my daughter and just walked away. I tried with all my strength to pull myself away, but the two who held on to me were stronger. The last vision I have of Nadine is of her arms, stretched out in my direction. I probably became unconscious then."
This is how survivor Roland Fuchs describes the dramatic moments immediately after the crash of one of the three Frecce Tricolori aircraft into the crowd. But in sequence.
Air Show as a crowd puller – despite protests
In the 1980s, the world was politically divided into two blocs: the West with NATO and the East with the Warsaw Pact. Germany was still divided, 43 years after the end of the Second World War. In the former Soviet zone of occupation – the German Democratic Republic (GDR) - Soviet armed forces were stationed, in the West - the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) - primarily Americans, British and French had established at numerous locations. Ramstein Air Base was then, as well as today, the largest US Air Force base outside the United States. Until 2005 there were also nuclear warheads stored here, in a restricted area to which German civilians had no access (and still do not have). But once a year, since the 1950’s, the US Armed Forces (the 316th Air Division) hosted an air show there. A festival where Americans and Germans came closer to each other. There were burgers, cola, fries, American ice cream, and of course a static show with tanks and aircraft. During the 1970s, sometimes up to one million people visited these air shows.
"We were some young aviation enthusiasts. Having visited the Flugtag in 1987 we went there again in 1988."
Wolfgang J., visitor from Austria
The highlight every year was undoubtedly the air show itself, where international aerobatic teams from all over Europe and the USA showed their skills for several hours. One got used to the standard protests of peace activists in the run-up to the air show. They were more or less a standard element of the whole thing. For years, left-wing groups had mobilized against NATO low-level flights over the Federal Republic of Germany, against the arms race, and ultimately against everything military. Also individual local politicians of the SPD, as well as the protestant church, spoke against the event. The CDU, however, always supported it. So it was the case on this August 28, 1988, a Sunday. CDU Member of Parliament Georg A. Schaar stated in advance that "acrobatic flying exercises are completely harmless for the uninvolved visitors", since they "happen only on the actual airfield area, where no uninvolved visitors stay."
In fantastic weather, 300,000 to 350,000 visitors poured gradually onto the premises of Ramstein Air Base – a value that no other air show in the world today can achieve on a single day. Outside the gates, a handful of demonstrators holding up banners welcomed the visitors. Occasionally there were discussions and some mutual verbal abuse.
Among the guests were mainly Germans and Americans, but also from other European countries there were many aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters who traveled here, partly by chartered buses, in order not to miss this spectacle, which officially served to consolidate and deepen the politically much-sworn German-American friendship. Even from Austria, some young aviation-enthusiasts had come to Ramstein.
Also many people who had little or nothing in common with the military or aviation, visited the air show in Ramstein, as Roland Fuchs describes in an interview with the author:
"I myself had absolutely no affiliation with air shows nor to Ramstein. We had planned to go there the year before, but then missed the date. In 1988, by coincidence, we read in a newspaper the advertisement of a regional bus company offering a day trip. We kept the date in mind and then drove there on the 28th ourselves. We were a young family back then. Our Nadine was born on August 12, 1983, I had then just turned 18, Carmen was 16. Parts of our own family did not support us and even mentioned that we should abort the baby. But we deliberately opted to have our sunshine. Those were difficult times, but also the most beautiful I was able to experience, even when the money was tight, so that we could not afford it to go on holidays. During summer there were dredging lakes, a folk festival and then just this air show, which offered to experience something different and to get a taste of America. On this 28th of August 1988 it could have also been an exhibition about agricultural machinery or US-Cars. We here in Baden Württemberg had no relation to Ramstein. The jet fighters thundered dozens of times each day across the country. I also had to look on the map first to see how I would get there at all."
But no matter if it was a spotter, an aviation fan or a visitor interested in technology – already the Static Display was packed with exhibits that could hardly ever be seen by a civilian in such close proximity during the Cold War. For example, the Dutch air force was present with F-5, F-16, Alouette III, BO-105 and Fokker 27, the US with F-15, A-10, KC-135, KC-10 and more. The announced flying display of the B-52 was canceled at short notice. Even Canada, France, Belgium and Great Britain had sent several aircraft.
The prospect of being able to see rare aircraft and the ability to take pictures of them unimpeded had also led Dutchman Marc Heesters to Ramstein: "At that time, plane spotting was still a really exciting thing. In the midst of the Cold War, many countries completely forbade the photography of aircraft. Here in Ramstein however, you could do it officially during the air show and see aircraft from close by, which you could otherwise hardly ever see. We were with around 200 spotters, who had traveled to Germany specifically for this event, by four buses."
During the morning, the venue was filled with more and more visitors. The mood was cheerful and frolicsome. At 12:30, the flight program began. For 20 minutes, various aircraft of the US Air Force – from the F-16 and C-141 to the C-130 Hercules – were in the air, before the Patrouille de France took off at 12:50. In the hours that followed, many other NATO aircraft were flying a display.
Marc Heesters recalls: "During the display of the French and the Portuguese, I realized that the lighting conditions for taking pictures had deteriorated, so I packed up my camera, for the time being."
Announced as highlight of the show was the in 1961 founded 313º Gruppo Addestramento Acrobatico – Pattuglia Acrobatica Nazionale (PAN) – Italian aerobatic team Frecce Tricolori, in English the "tri-colored arrows". Equipped with the Aermacchi MB-339 PAN since 1982, the Italian Air Force team was (and still is) one of the best in the world. It is the only team that flies its displays with ten aircraft. At 15:40 the formation lifted off and commenced their display. The grand final was the "pierced heart"-maneuver.
In this maneuver, the formation of ten aircraft climbs in front of the audience and then divides into two sub-formations of five (to the left) and four aircraft (to the right) whose trajectories and the use of display-smoke draw a vertical heart from the center above (heart curve almost symmetrical, but spatial offset) parallel to the public. Exactly centered under the dissolving-point at the "heart point" at the same altitude (about 75 to 90 meters) the two sub-formations cross each other in an encountering maneuver. The solo-display aircraft retains its trajectory and closes the loop, by piercing the heart of the two sub-formations like an arrow, obliquely upwards and towards the public. The solo pilot should fly over the other two sub-formations with a short time delay of about three to four seconds.
"When I am flying, I feel free like a bird. We are going to the limits but I don't think I am doing something dangerous"
Pilot Ivo Nutarelli a few weeks before the crash
However, this maneuver had previously been repeatedly criticized, because of the high risk potential. In Ramstein, however, neither the politically responsible German authorities nor the US military appeared to see any problem. And so the tragedy took its course.
So at 15:44 the solo-display pilot, the 38-year-old former Starfighter-pilot Ivo Nutarelli (with an experience of more than 4,100 flight hours), reached the intersection point four seconds too early - and far too low.
"I stood in an around 45 degrees angle to the solo-aircraft of the Frecce Tricolori and realized in an early stage that this could not be sufficient."
Police officer Olaf Hirsch
At this point, Marc Heesters had taken his camera out of the bag again to take pictures of this spectacular maneuver. Roland Fuchs, his wife Carmen and their daughter Nadine were on the way back to their car again. "We took Nadine in the middle, so that we could not lose her in the midst of the crowds", Fuchs reflects on the last few moments before the accident.
Meanwhile police officer Olaf Hirsch saw the catastrophe already coming: "I stood in an around 45 degrees angle to the solo-aircraft of the Frecce Tricolori and realized in an early stage that this could not be sufficient."
Air show visitor Johannes Schank, a former firefighter, who later helped to care for injured people, had a similar experience. "It was clear to me that it had to smash right now", were his thoughts as he saw Nutarelli's solo-aircraft flying towards the crossing point.
However, the majority of the more than 300,000 people on the huge airfield area had no idea of the tragedy that would break over them in a matter of seconds.
Suddenly a deafening bang – solo-aircraft (Pony 10) of Ivo Nutarelli collided at an altitude of about 40 meters with its right elevator with the cockpit of left-wing aircraft Pony 2, which was controlled by Giorgio Alessio. Alessio was probably killed instantly. Split seconds later, Nutarelli’s aircraft crashed into the back of Mario Naldini's lead-aircraft, Pony 1, which killed Nutarelli while still in the air.
Through quick-thinking and in a split second, Naldini managed to activate his ejection seat, but died on impact with the ground, as his parachute could not fully deploy anymore due to the low altitude.
"To fly with the Frecce Tricolori is an adventure every day."
Mario Naldini, two months before his death
The two parallel to the audience flying aircraft Pony 1 and Pony 2 crashed leaderless, whereby one of the two MB -339 crashed on a UH-60 Black Hawk Medevac helicopter of the US armed forces, seriously injuring the seven-person crew – Helicopter pilot, Kim Jon Strader, suffered so severe burns that he died from these on 17 September 1988.
Ivo Nutarelli’s solo-aircraft Pony 10, which was flared up after the collision – that occurred only around 300 meters in front of the audience – also maintained its trajectory, turned to the left and slammed burning to the ground, about four seconds later, only 30 to 50 meters in front of the audience. Due to its kinetic energy, the jet slipped further into the crowd, dragging a barbed wire barrier with it. Those who stood near the crash site had barely time to react, especially as many visitors initially thought of a pyrotechnical part of the show.
"I fell with my face to the ground. While falling, I felt that my whole body was splashed wet. It was kerosene that ignited immediately. I was lying on the ground burning."
Only a refrigerated truck parked in the audience area prevented the wreckage of Nutarelli's machine from literally "mowing down" even more people. At the same time, a rain of debris and hundreds of liters of burning kerosene hit the visitors, who had no chance to escape – just like the family of Roland Fuchs:
"When the Italians flew their 'pierced heart' I just turned around, I still said to Carmen: 'Look!' But my wife did not even have the time to turn around completely. I saw fire and debris. It was only until one of the planes flew directly towards us that I realized the danger: That was not a show anymore! I shouted: 'Run!’ – but Carmen only looked at me wide-eyed, as if to say, 'there’s no time anymore'. She only brought a chopped 'au' over her lips, while she was struck by a large piece of debris on her head, which bent unnaturally forward. That was the last thing I saw of her. That could not be true! At the same moment I was also hit by a part and was thrown a few feet backwards by the blast. I fell with my face to the ground. While falling, I felt that my whole body was splashed wet. It was kerosene that ignited immediately. I was lying on the ground burning. When trying to stand up, I realized there was a large piece of metal on my lower body. One leg was free, with which I could push myself from under the debris away. The part itself did not move an inch, as it was too heavy and too large."
Marc Heesters and his Dutch spotter colleagues were more fortunate. They were standing far enough away from the crash site: "I heard the bang and saw fire in the viewfinder of my camera. As a regular air show visitor, I knew about the risks, but could not believe that it really happened now. I kept my finger on the trigger and just continued to shoot pictures. I remember that small pieces of debris were falling onto my arms, and within fractions of a second, the whole area was in total chaos."
"I saw people wandering around who were charred black or snow-white as if powdered with ashes. Everywhere there were people or ripped off body parts lying around."
Visitor Thomas Wenzel
Austrian visitor Wolfgang J., at that time 22 years old, and his friends escaped the catastrophe by a hair's breadth, as he remembers:
"My aviation-enthusiast friends and I drove, just like the year before, to the air show in Ramstein on August 28, 1988. After the travel through the night we arrived at the Airbase early in the morning and visited the Static Display first. We admired the for us at that time partly unknown and new planes and helicopters, spoke with pilots and crew members, and tried to take pictures of the aircraft on display between the crowds. Time literally flew by, and with some delay, we wanted to walk forward towards the air show, more specifically to the display-line where we also stood in the previous year. But already a huge crowd rolled over the access way and because of our delay we did not find a good place at the display-line anymore. So we decided to move further to the right. After about 200 meters there was still no place at the front and since the flight program had started, we just watched it from further away in the back. Everything was waiting for the climax and completion of the programme, the Frecce Tricolori. After a few minutes into the display, the accident happened and three of the aircraft crashed. One of the planes crashed onto the runway in front of us and exploded. It was as if a bomb had hit. While we were still staring in shock at the burning wreck in front of us, the heads of the audience turned to the left and I saw how the solo aircraft crashed burning directly into the audience - almost exactly where we were last year and where we actually wanted to stand now. After the impact and the explosions, there was dead silence for a few seconds, everyone stared at the inferno, no one moved. Only then panic broke out. People screamed and ran away in all directions. My friends and I started to run as well. After a few meters, I realized that running away actually doesn’t bring anything, also as everything was already over. So I stopped and tried to orient myself. In front of me, a huge black cloud of smoke rose into the sky and there was an extreme smell of burned flesh in the air – even after many months I noticed this smell in my nose and cannot forget it until this day. I walked past charred people as if being in a trance. Many had burns all over the body and screamed while others were silently sitting on the ground and staring straight ahead. It felt like an eternity until the first ambulance arrived and the first rescue helicopter landed, but I cannot say how much time really had passed. I had the impression that the cordons and the deployment of rescue services were fairly uncoordinated. Until then, no one was faced before with such a disaster and apparently no one of the organizers had expected something like this could happen. All exits and roads were closed to transport victims, and we had no chance to leave the terrain or to contact relatives. At that time there were still no cell phones. Only late in the evening we managed to reach our car and to start our journey back home. We then called our worried families at home from a motorway service area - so they learned late at night that we were safe. For me it was clear at this moment: Air show never again. After about a year I had overcome most of my shock and the enthusiasm for flying won the upper hand again. Meanwhile, I visit aviation events again. But with all the love for aviation – I cannot let go the events of this August 28, 1988, as they are firmly burned into my head."
The German visitor Thomas Wenzel lost his girlfriend and other acquaintances on this day:
"Suddenly, I heard a strange bang and the sky above me was littered with rubble, I knew that something must have happened. So in order to look for my girlfriend and the others, I quickly walked around the cab of the truck, where I only saw the burning wreckage of the solo-aircraft hopping towards me. I dropped the camera in shock and shouted 'Run away!' and started to run myself as well. It was useless. An unimaginable heat seized me and I thought I was going to die now. In front of me, a wing or at least a large part of it passed by and shaved everything down. A man was thrown away like being fired from a catapult, others disappeared in a wall of fire. An incredible pressure pushed glowing hot air into my lungs and then suddenly there was no air left to breathe anymore, I looked down to see if I was also terribly burned or lacerated. I was not. Now for the first time I consciously became aware of the stench in the air, it was a mixture of burned meat, kerosene, fresh blood and metal - unforgettable! I immediately started to look for my girlfriend, but I couldn’t find her. Terrible screams came from all over. I saw people wandering around who were charred black or snow-white as if powdered with ashes. Everywhere there were people or ripped off body parts lying around. The 'shapes' that were lying on the ground were partly so melded that I was not even able to tell if it was man or woman. Since I could not find my girlfriend, I started looking for parts of her. Leather withstood the heat very well, so I searched purely mechanically, on legs lying around for the leather shoes that she wore, but found nothing."
Norbert M., on the other hand, had good fortune in misfortune – at least physically speaking – and described his experiences immediately after the collision, on his homepage in 2001:
"All three machines crashed, whereby the solo-pilot rushed towards the crowd – where I was standing as well. One could only hear a ventriloquial thump and see a fireball in the sky – many people did not even realize what was happening. It was clear to me that this was not part of the programme, but because of the many people around me, I was not able to move from where I was. Then panic broke out, I was knocked down and overrun by many people. I saw how the other two aircraft crashed on the runway and I saw this single aircraft coming towards us. I tried to get up, but I did again not manage, because the people were running over me for the second time. Because of the changed position, somebody kicked me in my left knee. At this moment the aircraft must have impacted. Now I managed to get up and run away from it, I was just able to flee behind a container (I do not know until today how I got there), since at that moment the fire roll went over us. The container behind which I stood saved my life. The heat in which I stood was indescribable and I thought that I would burn to death. The heat was so immense that all the oxygen in the air was gone and I could not breathe. To what was happening behind me, I could only guess, because I knew that the aircraft had crashed into the crowd - directly behind me. I stood on the left side of the container where chillers and tires protected me from bad burns. Now I tried to get to the right side, because I thought that the aircraft was not yet completely broken apart and that the remaining fuel would still ignite. I was about to emerge from behind the container when a few additional explosions could be heard again. As nothing else happened anymore, nothing was keeping me behind the container anymore and I tried to reach safety. What I saw when I came from behind the container was indescribable - everywhere there were burned people, some ran around and burned, with many of them the skin hung from the body, up to unrecognizable burned people. What I saw is even today – after 13 years – still severely burdening me."
While the – also damaged but still airworthy – seven remaining aircraft of the Frecce Tricolori still flying in the air regrouped and landed on the nearby Air Base Sembach, the rescue chain was activated on the ground – and that could hardly have been more chaotic.
Amateuristic emergency management costs human lives
Only a handful of medically trained German forces were on site, as they had not expected a disaster of this magnitude and therefore had not compiled a corresponding emergency concept. And while these helpers were left on their own, the Americans used their long-obsolete "Vietnam strategy" in the (de facto barely existing) "care" of the injured, which consisted of "Load and Go". Specifically, this meant nothing more than putting injured people on trucks, in buses and flatbed trucks and then moving them as quickly as possible to the nearest hospital. A fatal mistake, because from a medical emergency point of view, a structured approach would have provided significantly better chances for many of the victims: Rapid on-site injury assessment and classification ("Triage"), first aid treatment of life-threatening conditions, including the laying of venous access and the offering of Infusions and analgesics, and then one-way transportation to appropriate clinics, depending on the severity of the injury.
The "tactics" of the US military to simply transport the victims into arbitrary vans and an uncoordinated departure meant for a large part of the injured, to be driven around for hours by partly mentally completely overburdened young recruits, who were not familiar with the local situation and without knowledge of the German language, before a (then already overloaded) hospital was found. To make things worse, the US military initially banned German emergency services from driving onto the air base.
"We found a variety of severely burned, severely injured patients who were completely untreated."
A German emergency doctor
For example, according to "Spiegel" of September 5, 1988, an American bus with ten casualties, some of them with life-threatening burns, only arrived two hours after the accident in front of the Municipal Hospital in Ludwigshafen. Until then, as the newspaper quoted an eyewitness, the injured, including a ten-year-old girl whose skin was burned to 60 percent, were "completely inadequate been taken care of". According to the witness, there was no doctor among the three US accompanying persons.
Survivors reported consistently – and this is also documented through video footage – that American soldiers, sometimes with force of arms, prevented people from providing first aid or picturing the chaotic conditions. Also local police dog handler Olaf Hirsch, on official duty on the base, reported in an interview with a German TV station later, that a US soldier had blocked his way. The officer's reaction: "I simply pushed the guy away then."
At 16:35, a desperate German emergency doctor reported by radio to his control center: "We are constantly looking for burned patients, who are torn from our hands by the Americans and evacuated completely untreated."
Only gradually – later but still – were German ground-based and airborne emergency services able to intervene in the event, to help and stabilize. And that was a good thing, because even hours later, there was a continuing lack of planning and chaos among the Americans. Another emergency medical officer, whose rescue helicopter landed after 18:00 – more than two hours after the collision – at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, describes:
"We found a variety of severely burned, severely injured patients who were completely untreated. When I landed in Landstuhl, severely burned people were partly lying on wooden boards, untreated, and there were no doctors on site, After treating one patient and handing over to the nurse, who had flown with us, for observation, I walked around on the helicopter pad of the military hospital for 10 minutes and treated several injured, whereby I never met any American colleague."
Leo Koslowski, the former director of the Surgery University Hospital Tübingen also publicly criticized the "hopeless rescue chaos". It is "a scandal and an unprecedented failure of the responsible administrations, specifically the Mainz Ministry of the Interior."
Although all the helpers involved, the US soldiers and paramedics humanly gave their best, they could not compensate for the prevailing material and organizational deficiencies to an even rudimentary extent.
A German assistant doctor reported the following scenes from a hospital:
"Then it escalated when they offloaded small children, three, four, and five years old, who complained and screamed. A very resolute colleague took charge. I took care of two children of two and three years old, exactly the age of my daughter. I suddenly felt sick and I could not do anything anymore. It was a physical nausea and shivering, I could not prick a needle into a vein, I could not assist anymore. This screaming of children - they were critically injured. At eight o'clock in the evening, after four hours, when there were not so many arriving anymore, I felt really bad. I requested the senior physician that I would not have to continue the night shift until Monday morning. I was allowed to leave. Afterwards, some were praised for the excellent organization – well, yes, the catastrophe had been transferred to the hospitals…"
Another drawback on the air base was that the German and US infusion systems were not compatible.
Roland Fuchs, whose body had up to 65 percent of third-degree burns – even today in many cases still a death sentence, and in 1988 according to the unanimous medical opinion he could actually not survive – was, like so many other unfortunate ones, on this day also victim of an inadequate emergency response. It took hours before he was evacuated, as he still remembers today:
"I was lying on the floor somewhere. When I opened my eyes, I saw many people running around. Something wet and soft was lying on and behind me. A woman walked by. When our eyes met, she suddenly stopped and started to yell. I imagine they thought that I was dead and put me in a place with about ten bodies. The wet, sticky thing I felt on top of me was a heavily-burned man who was no longer alive. The woman called someone and shortly after I was carried away by four men on my hands and feet. Eventually I was laying on the floor in a small tent, together with three others, but was not given medical attention, and was only held back, because I continuously wanted to get up to look for my wife and child. I remember that later I was lying outside on the ground with my feet up. Someone came with a bag of ice cubes, to cool me down. Now there were many people around me to help. I was given a lot of Cola and Fanta from paper cups. I was extremely thirsty. I kept asking about Carmen and Nadine. People reassured me by saying, 'We'll find them', or 'they will be here soon'. Later on I was lying on a stretcher in a big tent or hall. There were many others with me in this hall. Between the rows, a man in a white coat walked around with a list. He was followed by a few men who, following his instructions, repeatedly carried away an injured person. They had passed me already a few times. Now they stopped. The man in the white coat looked at me briefly, wrote something on his list, shook his head and wanted to walk further. Intuitively, I immediately started screaming, though I barely made a sound. They came back, something was written on the list, and I was finally carried out. Then I was evacuated by helicopter. I think it was a clinic where I laid on a stretcher somewhere at the entrance for a long time. There was a lot of hectic around me. An English speaking doctor and a nurse came and asked me for my name in English. But I could not answer and only asked about my wife and daughter. They apparently did not understand me. I got an injection so that I could not move and speak anymore. But my eyes were open, and I heard everything. The doctor cut my shoes and pants – at least what was left of them. I was carried out again. In front of the building there was a large crowd. Next to my stretcher walked a black man who was carrying my infusion. I was dragged to a huge plane with an open stern. Next to it stood a helicopter with a running engine. It was pretty loud. I was supposed to be brought into this plane. We were almost in the belly of the plane when we had to go back. I do not know exactly why, but I suppose that there was no room left in the plane. Because here there were also many injured, but in contrast to me apparently well looked after and with proper bandages. So it happened that I was loaded into the helicopter, which flew off immediately. When the door opened after landing, I was, to my great astonishment, back on the airfield in Ramstein. Though not exactly at the crash site, but very close. I noticed that because of the turmoil that still prevailed here. I was offloaded again and was unconscious shortly thereafter. I shortly came back to myself while I was lying in another helicopter that was about to leave. I can remember that exactly, because the helicopter made a turn when taking off and I was afraid to fall out. I was lying on the floor and the door was open. As I later learned, this was the helicopter that apparently took me to the hospital in Landstuhl, from where I was transported to Koblenz that same evening."
It was not until 19:00 – nearly two and a half hours after the accident – that Roland Fuchs arrived in a hospital and was until that time basically not being taken care of, from a medical point of view. Hundreds of other wounded had similar experiences that day.
Physicians today agree that the totally inadequate emergency approach and the outdated, yet chaotically implemented "load and go" approach of the US armed forces lead to many lost lives that could have been saved if there had been an optimal health care chain.
This is confirmed by the Viennese emergency physician Dr. med. Joachim Huber in a conversation with the author: "There was almost no preparation for a possible accident, no emergency teams, no 'leading emergency doctor' and thus no structured emergency-disaster medicine in Ramstein. The standard procedure of those days to bring injured people as quickly as possible to hospitals, without appropriate first aid, led to serious consequences."
In the report of the German Bundestag, this failure is described euphemistically: "Given the extent of such a disaster, the insufficient preparation for such an accident, the number of dead and injured and the nature of the injuries, made shaping of the rescue work extremely difficult."
Nevertheless, the simple young US-soldiers on the ground cannot be reproached, says the survivor Roland Fuchs: "Blame for the non-existent emergency concept were the politics and the military. In the years after, I myself have had a lot of contact with American helpers of that time. I think they just tried to help in the mess as best they could, but they barely had a chance, and many of the US helpers are still suffering enormously from what they experienced back then."
The confirmation of this assessment comes from a US soldier, who was also a victim on this day:
"One of my squad's tech sergeants held a ten to twelve-year-old German girl who had burns, but I could not say how severe they were. She looked at me all the time and asked: 'Will I die? Will I die?' And I could not answer either one or the other, so I just looked at her and said: 'You're alright, you'll be back.' And all the time she was screaming for her mother. And I just cannot get that face out of my head ..."
A young female US soldier processed her experiences years later in a blog entry: "I was with my four-month-old son, the stroller and my German girlfriends at the air show. We were standing in front, where there was this car with good ice cream. When the French jets flew right over us, I had a weird feeling, in fact I already had that the whole day. One of my buddies, when looking at the jets and maneuvers, said that one of them would crash. An endorsing murmuring went through our ranks. I turned around to my friend Christina and explained to her that I was worried about the flying over people. In case of an accident we would not be able to get away fast enough, especially with the baby. Christina looked at me and I knew that she had the same opinion. She took my son Joshua out of the stroller, and we started walking towards the crew quarters. When we arrived and as I just had the door buckle in my hand, the aircraft exploded. For a moment I did not realize that, but thought of an earthquake. A friend came out of the building and said that the planes had crashed."
Later, this military officer still helped to care for the injured in the military hospital Landstuhl: "What I saw there was terrible. About many things I have only a vague memory."
A true heroic act of a US soldier presumably saved the life of a German visitor: Thinking quickly, the helper tore the woman to the ground on the crash of Pony 10, and then threw himself protectively over her body as Nutarelli's aircraft, dragging a fire roller behind him, slid into the audience. While the woman got away with minor physical injuries, her rescuer suffered severe burns.
Within a very short time all television and radio stations reported about the disaster. Friends and family of air show visitors were understandably deeply concerned about their relatives. But in the "pre-cell phone era" they had no way of knowing if the missing persons were still alive. Conversely, also the unharmed air show visitors could not inform their relatives. The few – for the military and other forces reserved – landline phones on the air base were hopelessly overloaded. The entire telephone network collapsed within a very short time. Radio amateurs from across the region subsequently took up emergency communications and made every effort to transmit messages to relatives of survivors. In the United States, millions of Americans saw the images of the inferno fluttering across the screens and had no way to reach their German-based relatives in the US forces.
The survivors in Germany often came home to their loved ones only hours later, because all access roads to the air base had been blocked to keep them free for the emergency services – friends and relatives of dead and injured persons often had to wait for days until they had certainty about the fate of the victims. Due to the severe burns, death persons could in many cases only be identified with the help of forensic dentistry. 20 experts of the Federal German Criminal Police Office were occupied with the identification of the victims. In addition, a missing persons office was set up in the cinema of the Air Base, to which people who were missing relatives or friends could turn.
On this 28th of August, 34 people died instantly (including the three Frecce Tricolori pilots), most of whom had been killed by the crashing plane or flying debris before being burned. About 1,000 other visitors were injured, of which around 450 had severe burns and other traumas. Several dozen were for weeks and months after in the hospitals fighting for bare survival.
Another 36 people lost this battle, including Roland Fuchs' daughter Nadine. The five-year-old died in the hospital of Ludwigshafen on 9 September at 09:40, on the day on which her mother Carmen, who was struck dead by a wreckage piece, was buried. Nadine was buried on September 13, next to her mother. At that time, Roland Fuchs himself was still in a coma and was more dead than alive.
Thus the official bodycount had increased to 70. Among them were an unborn baby (his mother survived seriously injured) as well as eleven other children and adolescents aged 5 to 17 years. Another unborn died with his mother directly at the air base, but was statistically not recorded as a "personal" victim. The father of the child has never wounded the loss of his family.
However, several eyewitnesses reported that they also saw a large number of dead US military personnel after the crash – but this has never been confirmed by the official US side. Officially, there were only four dead Americans, including 9-year-old Joshua Fryinger and his mother, the 36-year-old Genevieve Riggs.
Since the US persistently refuses to give concrete figures on affected members of its own armed forces, it can be assumed that the actual number of victims is significantly higher. Not counted in this number of casualties are those survivors (visitors, emergency crews, soldiers ...) who committed suicide several years later, due to the events of that time (including at least one firefighter) or who died of diseases, which emergence and sequence were possibly influenced by the accident (e.g. cancer).
As a direct result of the air show disaster in Germany, military air shows were initially completely banned and only allowed again years later under very strict conditions. Since Ramstein, flights over or in the direction of the audience are generally forbidden. Not until twelve years later, a military aerobatic team – the Patrouille de France – flew in Germany again, namely at the ILA in Berlin. The Frecce Tricolori were not dissolved despite initial considerations, but revived the flight operations with a slightly adapted programme. The calamity-maneuver is presented today in a "defused" form – in 1990 again in full-display. In Germany, however, the team has never performed since.
Immediately after the tragedy, NATO Chief of Staff John R. Galvin declared at a press conference, with a stony expression, that the air shows would "continue in any case", because they were "significant". But at this point, the German politics surprisingly once pushed back against US interests. In Ramstein, there has been no air show anymore until today.
Despite the disaster of the rescue operations, the US military initially saw no reason to admit mistakes or to rethink their tactics in case of mass casualty of injured. On the contrary. A military spokesman explained, shortly after the disaster and in front of running television cameras, in a presumptuous manner that the emergency medical care this Sunday was "handled very well". A slap in the face of survivors and relatives of the victims.
The US then also immediately received backing from Rheinland-Pfalz Interior Minister Rudi Geil, who also flattered the chaos to the media and spoke of a patient care "without difficulty" – it appears that it was preferred to not anger the US as a powerful NATO alliance partner, but to set on covering-up instead of refurbishment. Particularly as the US forces stationed in Germany represented a significant economic factor and still do today.
"Overall, I think there was a good cooperation between the responsible authorities in dealing with the consequences of this disaster."
Rudi Geil, Minister of the Interior, on September 8, 1988
Despite all the beautiful words – in fact the rescuers lacked the necessary medical equipment for the initial care of burnt victims. Coordination of the helpers and the distribution of the severely injured to specialist clinics took place in a hopeless chaos, as also the "Spiegel" reported on September 5, 1988. Burkhard Busch, a university lecturer in Düsseldorf, a pilot himself and who was already actively involved in the preparation of air shows, has "never seen such a mismanagement before", as he confirmed in the news magazine.
"Together with my comrades, I was involved in the investigation and cleanup, we had to mark every wreckage and human remains, it took us three days to do it, and I can not forget what I saw during that time."
Gordon Tatro, US soldier, in 2004
At the air base itself, the bodies were transported by low-loader from the scene of the accident within a very short period of time and the damage on the basis (provisionally) repaired. Already on Tuesday, two days after the accident, the flight operations in Ramstein were resumed. "As if nothing had happened," said firefighter Hans Joachim Lenhard, who was one of the first at the crash site to extinguish the fire.
After the disaster, peace activists, politicians from the left camp and the German Trade Union Confederation organized again demonstrations against military low-level flights and air shows in the Federal Republic of Germany and demanded as a consequence of the accident to initiate a general military disarmament. The German politics, which until today bends anticipating in obedience forward to the wishes of the United States, suspended military low-flying symbolically for a day. Furthermore, a planned air show of the German Armed Forces in Lechfeld was canceled immediately. More did not happen in consideration of the interests of NATO and the US military.
The suffering of the injured
Of the 34 people who died immediately as a result of the crash – as mentioned before – almost all of them died from the debris of the jet before they burned. The officially 36 remaining casualties had severe burn injuries and often additional trauma from wreckage that had hurled into the crowd like shrapnel. In addition, there were inhalation traumas by inhaling the glowing hot and toxic kerosene fumes. Some of these critically injured individuals spent several days in the hospital, fighting for their lives. Others for weeks. The last casualty attributed to the flight accident succumbed to his injuries in early October 1988. However, several aviation experts assume a significantly higher number of deaths, as the US Armed Forces – as already mentioned – provided little information about possible victims in their own ranks.
The survivors were cared for in more than 40 hospitals, which carried on for many years. Many of those affected had to undergo dozens of surgeries and still suffer from the implications 30 years later: pain, limited mobility, scars. Roland Fuchs was among those seriously injured and reports in his own words about his recovery and the sequelae:
"My body surface was burned for more than 60 percent, second- and third-grade. The treatment took place in the Central Hospital of the Federal Armed Forces in Koblenz. This meant many weeks of intensive care, everything had to be sterile. Every infection could be fatal. Every day several hours of dressing changes. In between surgeries, again and again. The painkillers did not show much effect anymore. For weeks, it was not clear, if I could keep my hands. One moment they said: The right hand can be saved. At some point it was concluded that the left hand was saved as well. There were many physical complications. It was almost impossible for me to survive all this. I owe it to the excellent treatment and probably to some miracles as well that I still live today. According to the doctrines in 1988, it would not have been possible for me to survive with such large-scale burns. My relatives were informed accordingly that I would die. During the first few weeks they were regularly called, because I supposedly would not survive the next few hours."
The intensive care unit was followed by post-combustion care, as Fuchs had lost 30 kilograms of body weight in just a few weeks: "I came to a rehabilitation center in mid-December, but after a few days I got a pulmonary embolism that brought me to the intensive care unit. Then back to rehab. Here, with the help of occupational and physical therapy, I once again learned how to dress myself, eat, hold a pen, and things like that. It took months, but it went forward. Always in small steps."
When the 23-year-old was able to return home, the grief over the loss of a wife and child really began. Fuchs: "Previously, I was distracted by the hospital routine, by surgeries, by pain. There were a few more hospitalizations, related to surgeries, skin grafting, straightening of fingers that became stiff. Today I still have wires in my fingers. The wounds healed. Scars, damaged lungs and several organs that were affected as well. With some people the appendectomy scar hurts when the weather changes. With scars that cover more than 60 percent of the body's surface and which are penetrated deeply into the tissue, one cannot imagine what the nerves pass on to the brain."
So Fuchs and other severe burn victims from Ramstein have been struggling until today with circulatory problems when temperatures are high, pain when it is cool, constant tension of the muscles due to the scars, headaches and similar problems.
Nevertheless, not only the body, also the psyche is for a part severely hit with these persons. Roland Fuchs, for example, gets rapid heartbeat when someone opens a package of crisps or a bag of gummy bears: "That always reminds me of the painful bandage changes in the hospital."
Others panic when they smell burnt meat. The symptoms are varied and have a name: post-traumatic stress disorder. According to estimates, this currently affects several hundred to several thousands of air show visitors, who were physically unhurt or suffered only minimal injuries – in any case this affects German emergency crews and young conscripts of the US Armed Forces who, while trying to help, were exposed to incredibly stressful impressions.
"My husband still has a lot of difficulties with that terrible time and what he experienced."
A female US soldier in a mail to Roland Fuchs
For example, an American woman whose husband then had to take care of the injured – including five-year-old Nadine – later wrote in an e-mail to Roland Fuchs:
"When I got to the emergency room, I went to the back where the ambulance cars were arriving and walked in. I walked down the hall, which was full with burnt people. They were burned so badly, that some bodies were still smoking. Some were still burning from the inside. They were pushed aside by the doctors, because they had no life expectancy and to make room for those who had a better chance to survive. My husband Troy was given injections and morphine and was told to give morphine to all the dying so they would not be in pain anymore. He was just 19 years old and given the job of deciding who was left in the corridor and getting morphine and who got to see a doctor. Troy still has a lot of difficulties with that terrible time and what he experienced."
However, initially none of the psychologically traumatized people received professional help.
This changed – at least for the German survivors – only from the year 1989 and is not due to government agencies, from which the survivors feel let down to this day, but to the private commitment of the married couple Jatzko with support of Heiner Seidlitz, a studied psychologist and theologian, who headed the spiritual welfare counseling-line Kaiserslautern from 1988 to 2015. Together, the three helpers set up the psychosocial aftercare group for the victims of the air show.
Hartmut Jatzko is specialist in internal medicine, psychiatry / psychosomatics, his wife Sybille conversation therapist. At the turn of the year 1988/89 Hartmut Jatzko treated a young man in the hospital, who had collapsed after a panic attack in a pedestrian zone and was taken by ambulance to the hospital of Kaiserslautern. Hartmut Jatzko remembers: "The man had panicked when a jet flew over. I asked him if he had been to Ramstein, and he said yes, but he did not want to talk about it anymore. At this moment I realized that we had to do something".
When Sybille Jatzko wanted to establish an after-care group, she got help – including from her husband and Heiner Seidlitz from the telephone counseling Kaiserslautern. But they did not know how to reach the victims, because the authorities did not assist them with reference to data protection. Only after an appearance in the television show "Menschen 88" ("People 88") with Günther Jauch, where the survivors of the mining-accident Borken wanted to donate their fee to the Ramstein victims, a call for the after-care group could be made public. This appeal was scolded by the Hospital Department and there was a ban on working on the Ramstein cause during working hours. The psychologist was even blatantly threatened by superiors to otherwise have to look for another job.
But the efforts of Sybille Jatzko had already paid off: After the appeal in the press affected persons actively reported. Around 130 air show visitors and members of the emergency services came together in April 1989, when the first round of talks took place. And for many of those affected, it became a lifeline, as was the case for Marlies Witt, whose 16-year-old son Mario lost his life in Ramstein: "Without this group, I would not have survived." The teenager had been badly hit by debris and had seven injuries, each of which would have been fatal on its own.
Sybille Jatzko: "At first we met once a month, a smaller support group still does that. The main group now meets about every four months. Some stay away for a long time and then return later. In the group there are sometimes 25 people, at other times 65 people who come. It has become a community of fate in which you help each other. The core of the group are those people who have lost children in the disaster."
People who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder often retreat, are unable to participate in everyday social life. Friendships break apart, just as long-lasting relationships. A loneliness is the result, which can extend to suicide. It is still not clear, how many suicides are a direct or indirect consequence of the Ramstein disaster.
"In our group there were some who followed their children, because traumas cut them off from the live threat," the experienced psychotherapist says and provides a concrete example: "There was a couple who lost their 10-year-old daughter. It was noted that they just could not handle the loss. The man developed a bronchial carcinoma with brain metastases and died at the end of the year 2000. This loss was definitely too much for his wife. She lost weight, moved to a new apartment at least ten times, as it smelled of smoke for her in every apartment. There were intrusions of catastrophes like a flashback in every flat that could no longer be controlled. We bought her food items so that she had something to eat at home. But all she could do was to sit on crates. Once we were called by a bereaved, who mentioned that Marion, which was her name, was sitting at the memorial stone in her car and is sleeping there too, with suicidal intentions. We accompanied her for a while until she decided to smoke and drink coffee only, in the hope that she would be brought home to her daughter and husband. She had no other relatives, she was completely alone. Marion described the aftercare group as her family. In July 2004, she died in our attendance in the hospital. The entire aftercare group attended the funeral, which we arranged for her."
The married couple Jatzko and Heiner Seidlitz offer the psychological care for those affected voluntarily and free of charge - both the German state and the US military have so far not paid any cost for the psychological treatment of the victims of "their" air show. A class action, submitted in 2003 by those affected, was dismissed because any claims were time-barred - a mockery, because in 1988, the posttraumatic stress syndrome was not yet recognized as a disease.
Treatment costs and haggling for compensation
Even for the millions who had to be spent on the treatment of burn injuries, for professional reintegration (e.g. retraining) and financial compensation for personal suffering, the US Armed Forces - after all, organizer of the air show with high-risk maneuvers and a lack of an emergency concept – felt not responsible. The costs were paid by the German social security and pension funds and thus, if you like, by the victims themselves (as taxpayers). Although a special fund was set up for compensation payments and treatment costs, besides Italy and the US, Germany was a main contributor. Until February 1989, according to a report by the German Bundestag, 9.5 million D-Marks (around 5 million Euros) had been incurred. Overall, it should be more than 16 million Euros to date.
But even for the low compensation, the injured often had to fight in a degrading manner. Although the Mainz Minister of the Interior Rudi Geil promised a "quick and non-bureaucratic" assistance immediately after the disaster, this remained largely absent. Instead, victims unanimously criticized "fussy and insensitive" treatments by offices and authorities, particularly by the offices for defense charges in Koblenz and Kaiserslautern. The life of the ten-year-old Melanie Rolbes, who was still transported alive from the Air Base, but later died of severe burn injuries in a hospital, was the German authorities worth just 6,000 D-Mark, equivalent to about 3,000 Euros. Only after the lawyer of the family had haggled "as in a Turkish bazaar" ("Spiegel" issue of January 30, 1989), the family received 11,000 D-Marks, about 5,500 Euros for the cruel death of the daughter.
But even in less tragic cases, there was no sign of "non-bureaucratic": For every shoe lost during the escape, for every damaged piece of clothing or the like, the German authorities demanded proof of purchase as a proof of ownership. Those who did not have these any more were vulnerable at the mercy of the officials and were often left empty-handed. The time value of damaged cameras, for example, was scrutinized by the officials with specialist retailers – and from the widow of an in Ramstein killed member of the Federal Armed Forces of Germany, the Forces even demanded reimbursement of overpaid death benefit of 17.20 D-Mark (about 8.79 Euro). After public protests, or as one would today say in the Internet age, a "shitstorm", the sitting defense minister found himself compelled to make a personal apology to the widow.
Also Roland Fuchs can sing a painful song about the proverbial "Korinthenkackerei" (raisin crapper) of the German state:
"I myself found and still find it bad that the injured party was asked to hire a lawyer to defend one’s rights. In my opinion the sole responsibility of the organizer and the licensing authorities would be to approach the victims, to admit the mistakes made and to stand up for the damage – as far as that is possible."
Instead, according to the family man, things had been set off: "It was in my eyes simply perverted what happened there. I understand that with cases like these it does not completely go without bureaucracy. However, I had to argue for little things where even my doctors shook their heads. Not even with the disabled person’s pass it went without difficulties. There were indications being negotiated, that I was clearly entitled to. These stories alone can fill entire folders. It was a time when I had lost everything and could hardly move. Nevertheless, I had to go to appointments with a lawyer. I did not understand the world anymore."
For example, Roland Fuchs was subpoenaed for a medical exam, followed by a conversation: "The doctor talked quite relaxed with me and asked what I'm doing now until the day is over and whether I have friends who support me. I said that I am occasionally invited to a barbecue or similar. At some point we said goodbye. In the assessment-report that she prepared, which also aimed to expose the psychological side, could be read: 'Mr. Fuchs has no psychological after-effects. He goes to barbecues and therefore does not mind open fire.' I then had to go back to the lawyer again and appeal."
In his view, there has hardly been any actual support. It was like "eat or die": "If we were not satisfied with an offer, we could only sue, it was pathetic."
Investigation of the cause of the accident
Due to hundreds of thousands of eyewitnesses (including hundreds of military pilots) and the presence of countless photo and video recordings, the analysis of the accident was relatively easy from a technical point of view. There was no doubt that Pony 10, the solo aircraft flown by Ivo Nutarelli, had reached the intended crossroads too early and too low and had therefore collided with two other jets of the team.
An official investigation report stated:
"The solo pilot had reached a higher altitude than the two main groups in the initial climb of the (...) maneuver and tried to balance his deficit with a sharp orbit correction and an extreme increase in airspeed in vertical flight. With the assumption that he did not have the usual horizontal distance of 1,400 feet from the flight path of both main groups either, he later reduced the power to a minimum and pulled out the airbrakes (the extended air brakes are also clearly visible on some video recordings, editor's note), as he continued his downward trajectory along a nearly vertical line. He caught the aircraft at a height of 108 feet above the runway and about 560 to 600 feet from the intersection of the two formations. This was followed by the solo-flyer's aircraft flying around 435 to 530 feet in a rising trajectory. At this point the pilot apparently realized that a collision was imminent, and in the last second he made a delayed and inadequate attempt to pull up the aircraft. The resulting height gain was not sufficient to avoid the approaching five-ship formation from the right, in a virtually horizontal flight orbit, so that it came to the collision."
"Why was the flying figure allowed to be flown towards the spectators?"
In other words, a simple miscalculation by Ivo Nutarelli was sufficient to erase at least 70 lives and change the lives of thousands of people forever. The execution of the maneuver "pierced heart" in the direction of the public had been explicitly approved by the responsible US military, after a dress rehearsal before the official event.
"Basically all display maneuvers at air shows are planned with precisely defined radii and speeds down to the smallest detail, including a safety margin. The Frecce Tricolori pilots belonged and still belong to the absolute elite of the Italian military pilots. However, despite intensive preparation and training flights something can always happen, just like in Ramstein."
Rolf Stünkel, former Bundeswehr-Jetfighter-Pilot
Why Nutarelli made the fatal flight mistake, will never be clarified with final certainty. It is quite possible that the experienced military pilot was limited in his ability to judge and act for a moment, because of the strong physical load (G-forces) which he had to exert during the maneuver and / or the mental pressure to fly an absolutely perfect programme. Maybe he also had the dress rehearsal of the previous day in mind. During the looping, Nutarelli flew into the clouds, resulting in flying over the crossroads point "late" after about 7 to 8 seconds, instead of the planned delay of 3-5 seconds.
Whatever it may have been, military high-performance flying does not forgive the slightest mistake. This was also the cause of several crashes of aerobatic planes and military jets before and after Ramstein. But just because the responsible persons had to know about this risk, it seems grossly negligent that the maneuver in the direction of the public was approved at all.
For Roland Fuchs and the other victims this is stunning, even today: "It is assumed that the pilot misjudged the situation. So many lives were made depended on the 'assessment' of a single pilot, who is only human and could fail. Should have the possibility of a misjudgment been considered from the outset in the planning and implementation phase of the air show? I think those responsible made it themselves too easy here. Why was the crossing point of the aircraft not just planned 100 meters further away? Why was it allowed that the flying figure was flown in the direction of the public?"
Questions to which victims and survivors have received no answer to date. Nor an apology. Fuchs: "There was nothing from either the US military or the German authorities. Everything I know, I read in the media."
Only Hendrik Hering, President of the Landtag of Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinlnad-Pfalz), apologized on August 22, 2018 – almost 30 years after the disaster – to the survivors and their surviving dependants. In the presence of victims, the Social Democrat said: "I apologize to you in the least for how the policy has dealt with the responsibility for this terrible event."
And yet Roland Fuchs does not reproach the killed solo pilot Ivo Nutarelli: "I cannot blame him and his colleagues. They also lost their lives and they certainly did not want to die that day, so the flying figure should never have been approved."
The fact that many survivors and relatives of the victims lost faith in the German and US authorities officially involved in the case was an ideal breeding ground for a conspiracy theory that the collision was deliberately caused to kill two of the Italian pilots. To understand the background of this theory, one must go back to the year 1980, more precisely to the 27th of June. At that time, a DC-9 of the Italian airline Itavia was accidentally shot down by Western fighter jets involved in a dogfight with Libyan MiG 23s. All 81 people aboard the airliner were killed, plus at least one Libyan pilot whose MiG 23 was also shot down. Who fired the deadly missiles, could never be clarified – they were probably French or US jets. On that fateful evening, before it came to a dogfight, there were at least two Italian interceptors in the air who had probably spotted the Libyan aircraft and set off an alert, but then returned to their base without further action. The background of this approach was that at the time Italy had (secret) business relations with Libya and thus tacitly condoned Libyan aircraft overflights. In the cockpits of the Italian interceptors, flying the F-104 Starfighter, were Ivo Nutarelli and Mario Naldini, two of the pilots who crashed and were killed in Ramstein eight years later.
This coincidence alone would not be surprising in itself. Due to the political explosive nature of the matter with the shooting down of an Italian passenger plane by fighter jets of a NATO partner, a huge cover-up action began. Radar recordings of the night disappeared as well as recorded radio messages. Initially, it was officially reported that a bomb had brought the DC-9 to crash. But courageous investigators from the legal circuit did not let go and continued their research. However, they ran out of witnesses in strange and brutal ways. Accidents, (presumed) suicides and heart failure killed no fewer than five witnesses from 1980 to 1987. In 1988, Ivo Nutarelli and Mario Naldini were killed in addition, as well as another five members of the military, who allegedly knew exactly what happened on the night of the shooting down. They crashed with sports planes, had car accidents, hanged themselves or were shot dead by unidentified gunmen.
Now back to Nutarelli and Naldini: The two pilots were apparently supposed to testify before an Italian investigation committee shortly after the air show in Ramstein, about their observations on the night of the shooting down of the Itavia DC-9.
Because this was no longer possible after the fatal crash in Ramstein, rumors spread that military secret services had eliminated unpleasant witnesses. Some relatives of victims of Ramstein subsequently clung to this theory, particularly as it was also fueled by Ivo Nutarelli's brother, Giancarlo Nutarelli. In interviews he repeatedly stated that the possibility of sabotage had never been thoroughly investigated, and that his brother had "for sure would have turned to the side in the last moment instead of flying into the team".
In the face of this tragedy, as much as wishful thinking – in addition to a man who has lost his beloved brother – the theory seems understandable from a human point of view, so little can the theory of sabotage be supported by facts. In fact, it seems to be nonsensical on objective consideration. Naldini and Nutarelli could not have known details about who shot down the DC-9, as they had not watched the dogfight itself. At most, they could have confirmed that Libyan MiG 23s were in Italian airspace after triggering an alert at 20:24. After that, they turned back and returned to their base at 20:50, so they had no perception of the events around Itavia Flight 870 during the period from about 20:30 to 20:50. The shooting down of the DC-9 took place, however, at 20:59; nine minutes after the two fighter pilots had landed on their base hundreds of miles away in northern Italy. In addition, Nutarelli and Naldini were on this evening flying as instructors with the two-seat version of the Starfighter, with two apprentice pilots. Following the logic of the conspiracy theorists, the intelligence services would have had to kill these two pilots as well. It is not known today that the two men were killed as well.
Besides, supporters of the "murder theory" have not provided an answer to the question of how the practical implementation of the alleged sabotage should work. The author of these lines is a trained pilot himself and spoke in addition with jet and military pilots. It would have been completely impossible to sabotage Ivo Nutarelli's aircraft (such as the controller) in such a way as to ensure that Nutarelli would collide exactly with Mario Naldini's aircraft against his will – particularly as there were obviously no problems during the four minutes before the collision The controllability of Nutarelli's MB-339 was not affected at all.
And even if – purely hypothetical – solo pilot Nutarelli’s ability to fly had deliberately been impaired by giving him medicines prior to the flight, the outcome would have been completely uncertain. Nutarelli could have crashed without colliding with another aircraft or "hitting" another plane than Naldini's. In addition, all machines were equipped with ejection seats, which therefore provided a real bailout option for the pilots.
So if it had really been in the intelligence service’s interests of wanting to kill Naldini and Nutarelli, to keep them from their planned testimony, they would certainly have chosen a different method and would have left nothing to chance. Nevertheless, with one of his statements Giancarlo Nutarelli is probably right: that his brother would almost certainly not just fly into his team mates and would have turned at the last moment.
That is exactly what Ivo Nutarelli was obviously trying to do, when he realized that a collision was imminent, as the official investigation report attests. Within fractions of a second, the pilot made the decision to initiate a climb. The experienced airman thus tried to save a situation that could not be saved anymore at that moment, due to the high speed of around 600 to 700 kilometers per hour and the small horizontal distance to the other aircraft. One has to realize that the approach to the two sub-formations was at breakneck speed. Nutarelli could have tried to save himself with the ejection seat at the moment when he apparently recognized the impending collision, but then he could no longer have had any influence on the trajectory of the jet, which in any case would have collided with the other two MB-339s and crashed into the public.
Dodging to the left or to the right (as aired by Giancarlo Nutarelli) at the same altitude could not have been an option either, as even then the jets would most likely have collided. In an interview two months before the crash, Ivo Nutarelli said: "Of course we are pushing the limit of the pilot and the aircraft. But I don’t think that I'm doing anything dangerous."
Another team pilot also stated that he was not worried: "These things (accidents, editor's note) happen to others, not us." An error, as tragically proved on August 28, 1988.
And so for pilots and professionals the cause of the collision remains obvious, without the slightest doubt. It was simply a pilot error. Nevertheless, the fact that this could have such dramatic effects was undoubtedly the responsibility of those administrative bodies that approved the maneuver towards the public, although no one was ever legally or financially held accountable for this. And that is besides the human tragedy the real scandal in this case.
Rolf Stünkel, a former Starfighter and Tornado pilot with his own display experience, also assumes human error. "General crash research shows that maneuvers that went awry, were due to wrong estimates, in part logical fallacies were made during a maneuver. If the overview of the situation is lost for only a split-second, or when a tiny distraction occurs in the cockpit, at such high approach speeds split-seconds of distraction can lead to disaster”, the trained accident investigator said. "Also in this case, such reasons could have led to the collision."
Several crashes with the Frecce Tricolori
Military formation flights (aerobatics) – whether with propeller engines or with jets – was and is always associated with an increased risk. This is confirmed by numerous accidents worldwide, in daily operations and at air shows. Also in the history of the Frecce Tricolori, there had been several fatal accidents before Ramstein, which were also caused by human error. Thus, on July 12, 1978, during a training flight over Rivolto, two aircraft collided mid air. One of the pilots, Graziano Carrer, was killed. Less than a year later, on May 27, 1979 Piergianni Petri crashed at an air show in the UK and died. Just over two years later, on 2 September 1981, Antonio Gallus was killed during a routine training flight over Italy. The Ramstein accident was therefore not a mysterious incident, but the team's fourth lethal crash in just ten years, albeit the most serious one. In 2002, a pilot of the team had to leave his plane with the ejection seat shortly before landing, as a bird got into the engine which got the jet out of control.
Other military aerobatic teams have comparably high loss rates. For example, alone with the Blue Angels of the US Navy not less than 27 pilots died in accidents between 1946 and 2016. In other words, around ten percent of all pilots who have been flying with the Blue Angels since the team was founded died in fatal accidents. Between 1969 and 2018, the British Red Arrows recorded no less than 17 accidents with nine fatalities, three of which were the result of airborne incidents alone. In one case, the aircraft crashed, because the pilot had lost consciousness due to G-forces.
And earlier – about two months before the Ramstein accident – two F-16s of the US Air Force were on a routine training flight over Nackenheim when they collided mid air and crashed – a school narrowly escaped the rain with debris.
Back to the Frecce Tricolori: Ten years after Ramstein, Stefano Rosa died when he crashed into a residential building with a single-engine propeller aircraft of the aerobatic team "Breitling Devils". Rosa was a pilot with the team in Ramstein, but was able to land safely after the accident.
Battle for memorial
Many survivors wished for a memorial site soon after the accident, where they could mourn for their loved ones. In late 1988, the municipal council of Ramstein-Miesenbach decided to erect a memorial stone in the residential area on the Ramstein Air Force Base. But the survivors were not satisfied with that, as Sybille Jatzko knows: "A visit was only possible if you had previously registered with the mayor of Ramstein. But it was for the relatives not possible to arrange the mourning on demand. After it happened several times that visits were denied without explanation, the relatives became furious. In addition, there was a desire to see who died and how old those persons were."
Also the location of the monument, vis-à-vis the base-supermarket, was felt by many victims as undignified.
In addition, there is no public access to the area. Based on these experiences, the decision was made to create a separate place of remembrance outside the air base. But when they had finally gathered sufficient strength in 1991, to implement their project, the victims experienced again little support. Once again the official bodies threw cudgels between the legs.
First, this community of fate made a request for support to the Catholic Church of Ramstein. The guardians of the Christian faith, however, first spent months with a stony silence, after which they announced that anyway there was already an annual yearly Mass taking place, where the victim were remembered. An additional memorial stone near the church would therefore not be required.
The city of Ramstein-Miesenbach in turn rejected the construction of a memorial site on the grounds that there was already one at the Air Base – and the Protestant Church pointed out, that their site was unfortunately "unsuitable" for such a project. A neighboring community of Ramstein-Miesenbach agreed to create a memorial site, but only then if all parties in the municipal council would agree – which was de facto unrealistic.
The disappointment and anger of the relatives of those killed grew from day to day considering the stalling tactics of the opponents of the project, and it was suspected that there were political motives behind the lack of interest for a public memorial as this one. On the one hand, the US Armed Forces were politically "sugarcoated friends and allies" and on the other hand there were well-known CDU politicians who publicly advertised the air show, before the accident took place. However, meanwhile, the local press had become aware of the concerns of the bereaved and the blocking stand of the authorities and officials, which created a corresponding public pressure on the politics.
The turnaround came on the sixth anniversary of the tragedy, in 1994. Through luck, coincidence and the support of the responsible forestry administration, a suitable location was found outside the Air Base, which the survivors had to buy from their private money, to finally be able to create a dignified memorial. A final act of humiliation for those persons who already had to endure so much suffering.
Psychotherapist Sybille Jatzko recalls in a conversation with the author: "One survivor and I were the last ones who still believed in this memorial. And now we were standing here, the relatives of the 70 victims, and they excavated the ground for the stone with their own hands. This shared work was a salutary process. It was the final act they could do for their lost loved ones."
However, it still lacked the list with names and birth dates of all victims, to be put on a plaque. Between the bereaved and these data, there was once again the notorious German bureaucracy with its killer phrase argument "data protection". Thanks to some "good spirits" at the regional government, the initiators of the project finally got the data at the end of December 1994 and the near relatives of those killed agreed to the publication of names and dates of birth at the monument. In August 1995 – seven years after the disaster – the public memorial could finally be inaugurated, dedicated to its purpose – in defiance of all previous attempts to hinder the project by the politics, the military and regional clerical dignitaries.
"That proved to us that the group's years of struggle for their interests finally paid off", Sybille Jatzko sums up. "There were names now, behind the number of 70. Many will only understand how important this is, when the names of their own family are included. And this memorial stone is just as important to me as the grave I care for", Roland Fuchs emphasizes.
He adds: "Our memorial stone stands in an idyllic grove, just outside the gates of the Air Base. The planes taking off fly directly overhead. It may sound weird, but this is the place where I can remember my family best. My life changed so tragically here in Ramstein forever. There I saw my wife Carmen and our beloved daughter Nadine for the last time."
In the past 23 years, the memorial has established itself; no one has doubts about it anymore. Even representatives of the US military now naturally take part in the commemorative events, regularly taking place there. The official commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the catastrophe will be held there at 5 pm today.
Memorial in Italy
After the Ramstein tragedy, also the Italian public was shocked. The pilots of the Frecce Tricolori have always been considered the best of the air force and as national heroes. Admission to the team is considered a great honor and is granted only a few aviators.
The fact that a pilot error had killed 70 people caused deep sadness. And so the wrecks of the three aircraft involved in the disaster finally arrived at the Rimini Aviation Museum. Over time, a shed was built to protect the debris from the weather. Also a memorial stone with the names of all victims can be found in the immediate vicinity of the remains of the aircraft.
Yet not only the Italians commemorate the victims of Ramstein here regularly – for years, it has also attracted German visitors of the air show, specifically those who have lost friends and family members, visit again and again.
"It was very important for me to see and touch these pieces of debris, goosebumps hit me from head to toe, but for me that was worth it. In the end, these pieces of wreckage cost many lives and also caused other blows of fate", Hans Joachim Lenhard summarized, a former firefighter who served in Ramstein on the day of the accident, after visiting the museum in 2003.
For Roland Fuchs, the visit to Rimini was also of great importance: "We met there with the brother of pilot Ivo Nutarelli. And for the 25th anniversary, members of the flying team were present at our commemoration, but rather unofficially. I have the impression that the politics and military do not want to take part in it, because it could possibly be interpreted as an admission of guilt. But perhaps an unofficial visit expresses more sympathy, than any stiff politician or general, for whom this would just be another mandatory appointment.”
For Fuchs, of course, the visit to the museum was emotionally stressful. Nevertheless, he emphasizes to the author again and again how important it was for him to have done this: "It helped me a lot with the processing of the experiences. So I stood before the metal parts that destroyed so many lives. It was important for me to see and touch them once again in this size."
Time does (not) heal all wounds
Burn victims of the accident and physically unhurt but mentally traumatized air show visitors are regularly confronted in their environment with statements such as "time heals all wounds". But that is not true. One only learns to live with the experience, some succeed better than others. While most of those who came to the air show out of pure passion for aviation still (re-)visit some of these events or even – like Marc Heesters – have acquired a pilot's license, others already mentally collapse when hearing the noise of an airplane.
Roland Fuchs sees the subject of aviation pragmatically, despite his own serious injuries and the loss of his family: "I myself can see planes. They are a fast and comfortable means of transport for me, which has nothing dangerous for me, but nothing fascinating either. I have to admit though, that I have not been scared of anything anymore, since Ramstein, I barely know the feeling."
Fuchs has never visited an air show anymore, since that fateful day and will not do that for the rest of his life: "Out of respect for the dead during this day, it is not possible for me. Besides, I cannot admire something that took away my family from me."
This morning, the commemoration ceremonies for the 30th anniversary of the catastrophe began around and on the Air Base. In these minutes, the survivors of that time are at the place where Pony 10 crashed burning, exploded and changed the lives of so many people.
One of the questions those affected hear over and over again is: "It has been so many years now, why do people still have to talk about it and why do they keep revisiting the issue?"
And then Roland Fuchs responds quietly and friendly: "Because even after so many years, my daughter Nadine and my wife Carmen have not come back to life and also after so many years, no healthy new skin has grown."
The author would like to thank Roland Fuchs and Sybille Jatzko for their kind assistance in researching this reportage, which is deeply devoted to the victims of the Ramstein air disaster and its relatives, as well as to all those who helped.
Text: P. Huber
Translation: R. Erenstein
Support: I. Muhr