The Ischgl Outbreak Families of COVID-19 Victims Seek Justice

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Mismanagement of a coronavirus outbreak in Ischgl, the Austrian resort town known for its après-ski debauchery, helped spread the pathogen across Europe. Now the relatives of those who died want justice.

By Jürgen Dahlkamp, Felix Hutt, Gunther Latsch und Walter Mayr

“Reykjavík 2,671 km,” “Helsinki 1,734 km,” “Soltau 861 km.” The discarded skis along the Pardatschgrat ridge high above Austria’s Ischgl ski resort were left behind by vacationers from all over the world, inscribed with the names of their hometowns and screwed to a post. They point in four directions, mostly to the north.

Until March 13, mostly Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians could be found skiing and partying in Ischgl — the “Ibiza of the Alps.” Then came that fateful Friday, when thousands of people began to flee from the coronavirus-infested Paznaun Valley.

Since then, the tiny town of Ischgl, with its 1,600 inhabitants, has been disparaged as “ground zero,” a hotbed where the virus was allowed to spread, first among visitors and then, when everyone was sent home, to Germany and beyond. According to research by the Austrian broadcaster ORF, more than 11,000 EU citizens alone infected themselves with the virus in Austria, mostly in Ischgl and the surrounding ski resorts. That doesn’t include those who were infected by people coming back from Ischgl. Virologists at the Medical University of Innsbruck later discovered that more than 42 percent of Ischgl’s population carries coronavirus antibodies. Some residents began noticing symptoms in late February.

At least 27 people, primarily Germans, supposedly paid for the fun they had in Ischgl with their lives. This included Thomas Henkel, a father from the western German city of Bochum who had no idea when he left Ischgl that he only had nine days to live. And Rudi Lempik from Pulheim, in Germany’s Rhineland region, who ended up in the emergency room even though his coronavirus test originally came back negative.

Those they left behind are now demanding light be shed on what unfolded in February and March. Or, rather, on what didn’t happen. Criminal charges are pending at the public prosecutor’s office in Innsbruck as well as at the Vienna-based public prosecutor’s office for economic crimes and corruption — charges against Austrian politicians, hoteliers and cable-car operators. Civil lawsuits are to follow in autumn at the latest.

At question is who bears responsibility for the virus being allowed to spread unhindered for days in the Paznaun Valley. Why was so much time wasted? Were the chairlifts and parties allowed to keep going for 10 days after the first warnings due to sloppiness and greed?

The search for answers leads back to Ischgl, Innsbruck and Vienna. It leads back to local mayors and bar operators, to the Tyrolean provincial government and to the chancellor of the Republic of Austria. It also leads back to the homes of those mourning lost loved ones.

Bochum, Barlachweg

On March 12, shortly after 9 in the morning, Doris Henkel sat in her office and wrote a WhatsApp message to her husband, who was at home. “Hi, honey, were you able to find out anything yet?”

Thomas Henkel had come back from skiing in Austria the previous evening and felt weak. Maybe it was just the long drive, given that the resort is eight hours from Bochum. Or maybe it was the long evenings in Ischgl, where the days are filled with snow and the evenings with schnapps and champagne.

Henkel didn’t have a cough, though he did have a fever: 39.8 degrees Celsius (103.6 degrees Fahrenheit). And diarrhea. He kept his distance from his family and called the Bochum health department. He asked if he could be tested for coronavirus. He wrote his wife: “They said I should wait. They don’t think it’s corona.”

The people from the health department said it sounded like a stomach bug. Had he been in a high-risk area, they had asked unsuspectingly — a week after Ischgl had been declared such an area by Iceland. Had he been in contact with anyone who was known to have been infected? No? Then they couldn’t test him.

Henkel wasn’t given an appointment to be tested until two days later. By then, Ischgl had finally been declared a high-risk area by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin, Germany’s public health authority. Henkel was given an appointment to come in for a throat swab in about a week’s time, on March 23. But by then, it was too late.

On March 17, paramedics showed up in protective gear and loaded a listless Henkel into an ambulance. His wife Doris wasn’t allowed to accompany him to the hospital in Bergmannsheil. It was the last time she would see him alive. Three days later, Thomas Henkel died of multiple organ failure.

The city of Bochum expressed its sympathies for Henkel’s death. On March 12, medical authorities around the country were still following the RKI’s guidance that only patients who “persistently” complained about “respiratory symptoms,” such as shortness of breath, should be tested. Those responsible in Ischgl also expressed their sympathies, but also insisted that they had complied with all official regulations.

Thomas Henkel, a software developer, died at the age of 54 and was buried in a Protestant cemetery in Bochum-Wattenscheid, because some people in a Tyrolean ski village decided to treat the coronavirus like a far-off problem. This, despite the fact that four days before Henkel had packed his skis into a VW Golf and set off for Tyrol with his boss André and two other colleagues, the first warnings about infected Icelandic vacationers in Ischgl had already trickled into Tyrol. Those warnings went largely unheeded.

If the looming danger had been handled less carelessly in Ischgl, Innsbruck and Vienna, or in Bochum and Berlin, then Henkel — a skier, tennis and badminton player — might have lived for several more decades. He had his high blood pressure under control. He could have continued to care for his family. Without him, his wife and son are struggling to pay their rent.

Above all else, they now feel powerless and empty. Thomas Henkel was happy to be alive. He spent his evenings cooking. Lasagna was his specialty. While he made food, he and the others drank wine. Sometimes he would play the piano he inherited, watch the guppies in his aquarium or crank up the Yamaha amplifier he had at home or the throttle of the Honda CBR 650 he had parked outside.

There’s now a photo of Henkel placed next to a tea light on a chest of drawers in their Bochum apartment. It shows him lying on the beach, his head resting on his hand, smiling. The picture was taken years ago on the Baltic Sea, on the Darss peninsula.

Doris Henkel has joined an Austrian initiative for a class action lawsuit. She wants those responsible for her husband’s death to be investigated and identified. As Leonard, her son, puts it, “Dad’s death can’t have been in vain.”

Vienna, Oskar Werner Platz

That lawsuit is being speerheaded in Vienna, in the office of Peter Kolba, a man with neck-length hair and a thick Viennese accent. A belligerent ex-parliamentarian, Kolba is a lawyer and the head of the independent Consumer Protection Association. He’s considered a specialist in class action lawsuits. His computer contains the stories of people from all over the world who traveled to Ischgl and went home sick.

Kolba is in charge of the effort to bring those responsible to justice. His list of registered victims includes 6,151 men and women from five continents. More than 3,200 of them were infected directly in Ischgl or through contact with someone who was there. Two-thirds of the victims are from Germany, but Kolba is also handling cases in Israel, the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates.

He wants to file a civil class action lawsuit with the hopes of collecting millions in damages. “Our great advantage in preparing further lawsuits is our database,” says Kolba. “When I need a detail resolved, I have access to over 6,000 people I can interview.”

The victims’ protocols show the extent of the Ischgl tragedy. In an Excel spreadsheet, the injured parties describe their experiences with the disease, with the worst cases ending in death. Next to them are the names of the Ischgl après-ski bars they frequented, businesses that have now become infamous as virus hotspots: Kitzloch, Nikis Stadl, Trofana Alm.

“My father is terminally ill. He’s going to die,” writes one Dane who was infected at Kitzloch and traveled home without suspecting a thing. “My life is totally ruined,” a Belgian complained. He, too, was a guest at Kitzloch and transmitted the virus to his mother. “I hope that Austrian justice system does its job.”

A returnee from the Netherlands, whose mother died, writes: “How to quantify this damage? A human life has no price.”

Vienna, the government district

According to paragraph 51 of Austria’s Epidemic Control Act, the Austrian government is responsible for combating reportable diseases. In the case of Ischgl, this means the Ministry of Health in Vienna could have ordered the closure of all ski lifts, hotels and après-ski bars at the slightest sign of that the coronavirus had arrived in the Paznaun Valley, which welcomed roughly 11,000 vacationers in the beginning of March.

The first warning about an infected person who had returned from Tyrol was received at the affected hotel in Ischgl on March 3 at 8:26 p.m. It came from Iceland. The official alarm was sounded shortly before midnight the following day, March 4. An email from Iceland’s highest health authority in Reykjavík was sent to Vienna via Europe’s Early Warning and Response System (EWRS), a web-based platform for controlling the spread of communicable diseases. Nevertheless, it took another six days for all of Ischgl’s après-ski bars to close — and nine days for lift operations to be suspended.

Austria’s chancellor, however, believes that’s no reason to start pointing fingers. Sebastian Kurz sits under a huge chandelier in his wood-paneled office on Vienna’s Ballhausplatz square. He says: “If you are trying to make it sound like Ischgl was responsible for a pandemic, then go ahead.” The chancellor seems determined not to discuss his government’s failure to act. Playing the blame game is pointless, he says.

Is Kurz afraid of legal consequences for himself or parts of his government? “No.” People close to the chancellor say that the government in Vienna was “only the mailbox between Iceland and Tyrol.” And besides: What happened in Ischgl will not happen again, Kurz says: “Our health authorities have learned a lesson.”

Bernhard Benka sees it this way too. The physician heads the Health Ministry’s IX/A/7 department, making him the country’s leading epidemiologist and an adviser to Health Minister Rudolf Anschober. All messages from the EWRS system pass through Benka’s desk. This was also true for the one on March 4, sent by an Icelandic counterpart at 11:55 p.m. It read: “8 cases from the skiing area in Ischgl.”

Benka says that although the warning was “discussed in the state crisis committee” on March 6, the district administration in Landeck should have been the one to act. In this view, the blame lies with the authorities in the state of Tyrol. Benka blames the three-hour delay of another urgent email to Tyrol — with the names of the infected and the hotels where they were staying — on “slight delays” in the heat of the moment.

And who bears responsibility for that ill-fated Friday the 13th, when thousands of vacationers were shooed out of the valley without first undergoing coronavirus tests, allowing the virus to spread? Benka says the Health Ministry is not to blame. The “regional authorities,” he argues, were responsible for implementing the decision.

Ischgl, Dorfstraße

The place where the Bochum-based software developer Thomas Henkel spent the last carefree evening of his life no longer exists: The Trofana Alm, one of the largest après-ski huts in the Alps, has been demolished, as if razing a building could lift its curse. A new building is now being constructed on the property.

The last photos Henkel sent to his wife Doris in Bochum from Ischgl show him with his companions: four men holding their glasses up to the camera, with two 3-liter bottles of Havana Club rum on the table in front of them, along with a sign: “Reserved for André.” Henkel’s boss had secured a standing table at the top of the balustrade.

On Tuesday, March 10, word had already spread in town that the virus was going around. Kitzloch, the après-ski bar, had already closed. In the Trofana Alm, the waiter approached the Germans around 7 p.m., advising them to finish their bottle of rum that evening. The district administration had ordered all après-ski bars that afternoon to close “immediately,” but the Trofana Alm’s operators wanted to squeeze in one more evening of business. The local police stood by and watched. On a good day, 300 liters (634 pints) of beer were served at the Trofana Alm — per hour — and the schnapps, wine and champagne flows freely. The walls were decorated with sayings encouraging people to drink away their inhibitions. The restaurant’s operator was Alexander von der Thannen, the chairman of the Paznaun-Ischgl tourism association.

His father is the likely most successful entrepreneur in the area. In an interview in his family-owned hotel, Johann von der Thannen orders coffee and smiles. He rakes in tens of millions of euros a year with his gastronomy empire. In what was once an alpine farming village, those sums put him far ahead of the competition. Diligence, not greed, is the foundation of his fortune, he says. When von der Thannen first heard the winter season would be ending abruptly on March 13, he thought it was a bad joke. “That can’t be, all because of a flu,” he says.

His view of the pandemic seems shaped by his balance sheet. The early end to the season cost his company 6 million euros ($6.7 million) in sales. But now von der Thannen and his son are again looking to the future. The new Trofana Alm will have fewer seats and, therefore, better ventilation. The elder von der Thannen shows the new construction plans, then escorts the group through the rubble of what, until March, was the locale’s 1,500-seat show arena famous for its table dancers and “emergency sexy nurse parties.” The nightlife business is dead for now, the hotelier says.

For Ischgl’s most successful businessman, the pandemic has less to do with the fates of those who caught the deadly virus at hotspots like the Trofana Alm and spread it to countless others, and more to do with dark forces at work in the shadows. “Who knows, maybe it’s all been manipulated. Maybe in reality there’s some expropriation of the people at hand,” von der Thannen says.

Innsbruck, Grand Hotel Europa

Things were still going well in Tyrol on Feb. 18. There wasn’t a single confirmed coronavirus case in the entire state. Sebastian Kurz met with representatives of the “Tiroler Adlerrunde,” a powerful business interest group whose members include Johann von der Thannen and his son, lift operators and sponsors of the chancellor’s center-right ÖVP party at the Grand Hotel Europa.

One week later, it was determined that a receptionist at the hotel had been infected with the coronavirus. The authorities reacted exactly as they were supposed to: The hotel was sealed off, guests’ contacts were traced and those affected were quarantined for 14 days. The system worked. The situation was under control.

If the reaction had been the same seven days later, when the first warning from Iceland reached Ischgl, would Thomas Henkel from Bochum and the other victims still be alive? Tyrolean Governor Günther Platter, who for 12 years has been the most powerful man in the state capital of Innsbruck, thinks such questions are pointless. He takes a breath. Then he says: “In the biggest crisis since World War II,” he says, he can identify nothing he did wrong.

Platter was the head of operations in Tyrol. “My job was to stay on top of things. Now the objective is to carry out a very critical review, free of special regard for individual people or institutions.” He argues that this is now the task of the public prosecutor’s office and an independent parliamentary inquiry panel.

For Platter, the stakes are high, not only legally. A third of all money earned in Tyrol in a year is directly or indirectly related to tourism. The prosperity of this alpine world is rooted in its business with outsiders, especially those from Austria’s immediate neighbor to the north, Germany. This love-hate relationship was once the subject of a scathing four-part, made-for-TV movie by the Austrian director Felix Mitterer, the “Piefke-Saga.” Three decades later, the director is planning a fifth episode, an Ischgl saga.

Did those responsible in Tyrol put the health of their guests at risk by waiting too long to close given that they were in the midst of the lucrative month of March? “The pressure was there, not only from the hoteliers, but also from the cable car operators,” says Christoph Walser, the president of the Tyrolean Chamber of Commerce.

The state governor is up front about the fact that lift-operator lobbyists like Franz Hörl, a Tyrol native and a member of parliament with the ÖVP, long resisted an early end to the ski season. Platter argues, however, that there was no alternative to imposing a quarantine over the entire valley and forcing all ski guests to depart immediately, on Friday, March 13. “What do you think would have happened if the news had been: ‘Tyrol is locking up German guests who show no symptoms for two weeks in the Paznaun Valley’?”

The governor isn’t worried about possible criminal charges. Platter kicks the ball into Vienna’s court. “All decisions were made in consultation with the federal government.” All in all, he argues, Tyrol took action against the virus more strongly and before all the other federal states, which is “a success story that I won’t allow to be bad-mouthed.”

But is this cynicism or a delusion of grandeur? After all, more than two dozen people lost their lives. A new advertising campaign designed to attract tourists back to Tyrol this summer — with a price tag of up to 4 million euros — is already underway. The slogan: “Things are looking up.”

Ischgl, local government

If you want to understand how Ischgl became what it is today, it’s best to ask Andi Steibl, a man with shoulder-length blond hair. Steibl is head of the tourism association and has been responsible for the Tyrolean ski resort’s image for decades. “The Ischgl brand transports different worlds of experience,” Steibl says. In other words: A tourist can ski in powder during the day and enjoy gourmet cuisine at night, but they can also drink themselves into a coma and shove rolled-up euro notes into go-go dancers’ garter belts at the Schatzi Bar.

“Of course, we’re more like Ibiza than Mallorca,” says Steibl, who’s proud of the fact that Elton John, Bon Jovi, Tina Turner and Rihanna have all performed in Ischgl. They even once flew Bill Clinton in for a 30-minute speech. Ischgl’s millionaires have come a long way since the days when their poor families sent them to Germany as kids to work as herders and farm hands so they wouldn’t starve.

It wasn’t until the ’60s that the flow of people reversed and the Germans started coming to Ischgl. He is “very, very sorry” for those affected by the virus, Steibl says. But who can say whose fault it was? Research by DER SPIEGEL, which the tourism association has confirmed, reveals that a large group of Chinese vacationers was staying in Ischgl at the end of December. Some of them apparently came from the area around Wuhan, in Hubei province.

Sitting beside Steibl and looking displeased, Mayor Werner Kurz adds that he’s not only “sorry for the guests, but also for the locals and employees who were affected.” He says: “The media is painting us into an unfavorable corner. There will continue to be après-ski in Ischgl, but with more quality.” Kurz is pleased that the criticism of his town is gradually “giving way to more bookings.”

For now, Ischgl is still quiet, but not for long. The first cable car is due to transport guests back to the Idalp mountaintop restaurant on July 3. The slogan for Ischgl, a place that is constantly reinventing itself, is “Relax. If you can…” A 60 million-euro thermal spa is currently being built.

Bernhard Zangerl’s family has commissioned a new slogan for its après-ski bar, Kuhstall. “The Art of Wahnsinn,” or “The Art of Madness,” is what they came up with. Zangerl proudly shows off his farm, where pigs can be seen wallowing in the mud next to peacefully grazing gray cattle whose DNA has been crossed with genes from Japan. The animals are eventually slaughtered and turned into “Wagyuburgers,” which are sold for 29 euros a pop in the family’s other après-ski restaurant, Kitzloch.

Kitzloch was the site of Ischgl’s first confirmed coronavirus case, a 35-year-old bartender. Zangerl, who only took over the restaurant at the end of last year, believes he is being wrongly accused. He denies that partiers in the pub were spitting pingpong balls from one beer glass to the next, though he does admit that whistles, which waiters use to let people know they’re coming, were sometimes passed around without being sanitized first.

Kitzloch’s heavy wooden stools are still upside-down along its bar. The double magnum bottle of Perrier-Jouët that costs 1,880 euros has been temporarily put away, Zangerl says. “It won’t go bad before the winter season.” That’s when the bar is set to reopen under its old name. He didn’t do anything wrong, Zangerl says. The blame lies with others.

In the criminal complaint filed in Vienna, the politicians responsible are accused of having “avoided closing the Ischgl ski area at the time of the arrival of a new week of guests on March 7 and 8, 2020.” The guests that were arriving were not informed: “Because of this, thousands of infections were caused, either intentionally or negligently, in the last week from March 7, 2020, to March 13, 2020.”

Pulheim, Eichenweg

Rudolf Lempik, a member of a local carnival association who goes by “Rudi,” has the kind of cheerful nature people from Cologne are known for. When two friends picked him up in front of his apartment in the city, their agenda had already been set: Ischgl, a guys’ holiday, downhill skiing, full bore ahead.

The group arrived in Ischgl around noon and checked in at the Hotel Urezza. Rudi shared a double room. A week’s accommodation with breakfast cost around 1,200 euros, with the total expenses for the week budgeted at about 3,000 euros. It was not a bargain, but this was Ischgl, where, on the one hand, you can buy a 6-liter, gold-plated bottle of Dom Perignon for 55,000 euros, and, on the other, people carry around sex dolls on the streets and abuse them. Everyone seems to have a different definition of the word “tourism.”

For their morning pint, Rudi and his buddies headed to Geri’s pub in the Maria Theresia Hotel, which they have known for years. There was no talk of the coronavirus. The virus didn’t even seem to be a thing at the hotel. They were joined by six friends from Cologne they’d been meeting up with for years — on the North Sea island Norderney in summers and Ischgl in winters.

The men started with beer and later switched to vodka. They were right in the middle of all the dancing and sweating. “We’re always knocking them back,” says one of Lempik’s buddies. Rudi couldn’t ski much anymore because of his knee. Until noon on Wednesday, the group spent most of their days at the bar in the Maria Theresia Hotel or in the Champagnerhütte. The men first learned that the coronavirus was spreading rampantly through the town when they were at Plangger, a delicatessen.

On Thursday, they partied on their hotel balcony. They left on Friday, one day earlier than planned. Back in Pulheim, Lempik, having grown suspicious, got tested and turned out to be the only one in the group who tested negative. A short time later, he felt a flu coming on. He drank tea with rum and took aspirin. Lempik worked at a car repair shop in Cologne. He was not the kind of guy who ran to the doctor for every little ache and pain.

His condition deteriorated. Lempik got a fever and started hallucinating. On Monday, March 23, he was taken by ambulance to the Marien Hospital in Erftstadt, where he was admitted into the intensive care unit because of an acute shortness of breath. At noon on Tuesday, he was anaesthetised, intubated and placed on his stomach. On Wednesday, he was transferred to Cologne’s university hospital.

The doctors told his partner, Dörte, that if she wanted to see Rudi one more time, she needed to hurry. They showed her a CT scan of his lungs, which were almost completely white. Dörte says she laid her hand on Rudi’s chest and felt his heart stop beating.

Berlin’s Wedding district, north bank

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) is Germany’s highest authority for disease control. It’s located in Berlin’s Wedding district in a venerable, vine-covered brick building dating back to 1900.

The institute receives risk assessments from the EWRS early warning system, a service provided by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Solna, Sweden. The head of the center is Andrea Ammon, a German who also worked as an expert at the RKI.

The ECDC in Solna or the RKI in Berlin could have sounded the alarm. Yet both remained quiet. So did the German foreign ministry. “One word from Heiko Maas about Ischgl, and the whole place here would have been shut down,” says one hotelier in the resort town, referring to the German foreign minister.

In the end, the city government in Hamburg was the first to become suspicious due to an increase in cases. On March 12, the city announced that it had “urgently requested an examination” of whether Ischgl should be declared a risk area. The Kiel Institute for the World Economy says that the consequences of the belated reactions to the coronavirus infections in Ischgl were “fatal.” The failure, including of Germany’s highest federal authority for disease control, is also substantiated through in-house data from the RKI.

Ammon, the ECDC head, didn’t answer questions regarding possible failures on the part of her authority. The RKI released a statement in which it wrote: “On the basis of the available information on the criteria of incidence, trend, local measures as well the likely place of infection for cases that were emported internationally,” officials had not yet come to the conclusion that Ischgl should be declared a risk area.

It was a deadly miscalculation.

Vienna, Oskar Werner Platz

How likely is it that charges will be brought in the Ischgl case? “For criminal prosecution, you need intent, wilful intent or neglience, i.e. the attitude of the person at the time of the crime, so the bar is, of course, very high when it comes to providing evidence,” says Kolba, the lawyer in Vienna. “Everyone will probably try to shift the blame from themselves to others — the district administration, the state government, the federal government.”

Kolba has served as a member of parliament alongside Justice Minister Alma Zadić. Does he think his former colleague will back his desire to resolve the case? And make it so the investigations will head where he’d like them to go — ie. from Innsbruck, home to a conservative government, to the special public prosecutor’s office for business and corruption in Vienna, which is governed by the center-left SPÖ in a coalition with the Greens?

“Zadić could intervene,” says Kolba, “but she’s not doing so because otherwise there would be problems with the coalition partner.” In other words: with Chancellor Kurz and his ÖVP party, but also with Zadić’ own party, the Greens, because “all mistakes made in the hierarchy, all the way down to the municipality of Ischgl, would ultimately lead back to the Health Ministry.” And that ministry, in turn, is run by the Greens.

Kolba now wants to request access to the minutes of all the crisis management teams. He says his goal is an “expansion of the complaint” — to include members of the federal government.

 

Der Spiegel

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