Scores of volunteers and rescue workers were on Saturday searching the wreckage left by catastrophic flooding in Western Germany in a desperate search for missing neighbours and loved ones.
As many as 1,300 people remained missing in the Ahrweiler district of Rhineland-Palatinate alone after heavy rainfall brought ferocious flooding to swathes of Europe, killing more than 150 people.
The exact number of people unaccounted for remains unknown. Many phone networks have been damaged, but some locals have managed to find loved ones during intermittent spells of reception. "That’s how we found friends who couldn’t make it [out]," Aaron Löhr, 22, said.
"Everything is in ruins," another middle-aged resident told the local Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper as he stood by wreckage of his destroyed house, which he and his wife had renovated last year.
More than 22,000 emergency services are working on rescue operations in North Rhine-Westphalia, according to the state government. "Anything is possible. We do not know what we will find in the cellars," a fire department section head told Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Saturday.
The search for missing people has proved extremely complex. Streets that have been washed away, along with unstable buildings still in danger of collapse, are making it difficult to search for and rescue the missing.
Nevertheless, many locals have helped. Renato Yez, a 54-year-old truck driver from Niederzissen, saved a woman’s life after he heard her cries for help and helped emergency workers to pull her out of the water, local media reported.
Elsewhere, a dramatic video emerged in which a fireman is seen being swept away by flood water before being rescued by a group of local residents.
Feuerwehrmann wird von Anwohnern vor dem Ertrinken gerettet
Quelle: FB#Hochwasser pic.twitter.com/x791oDjbtd
— Blaulichtelfe313 🚒😷💉 (@blaulichtelfe) July 15, 2021
On Saturday, at least 11 military helicopters were still working to rescue people who hade climbed on top of their houses to get away from the rising water and are stuck there. Hundreds of soldiers are using armoured vehicles, boats and ambulances to carry out rescue operations.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has scheduled a visit to the flood-affected areas in Rhineland-Palatinate for Sunday.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German federal president, visited the badly-hit Rhein-Erft district on Saturday. He said the flood disaster is "beyond our imagination", adding: "We have met people who have lost everything. The greatest loss has to be borne by those who have lost relatives in the floods."
The situation in Western Germany remains critical. The Rur dam in Ophoven, a district of the city of Wassenberg in the Heinsberg region, broke late on Friday night, according to the Cologne district government, and around 700 inhabitants of Ophoven were evacuated by rescue workers.
Further evacuations are currently planned near the Steinbachtalsperre dam, where high water levels continue to apply pressure.
In memory of the victims of the severe weather disaster, the flags on numerous buildings in North Rhine-Westphalia will fly at half-mast until Monday.
Soldiers in North Rhine-Westphalia have been helping with search and recovery efforts
Credit: David Young/Avalon
More than 60 pets have been brought to safety in the flooded Ehrang district. Rescued dogs, cats and other animals are being housed at a local animal shelter.
Many people had to leave their pets behind in the rush to flee their homes.
Ralf Becker, who lives in Bliesheim, spoke to the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger about a rescue operation he had carried out to save stranded horses. "It’s like being in war," he said. "Containers and cars float around [as well as] gas containers, faeces and puddles of oil."
Together with neighbours, he rescued about 70 horses from a local stable. "The horses there were drowning," he said. "The animals would have had to stand up to their necks in the water for about 24 hours."
Zoos have also been affected by the extreme flooding, with animals at the Gertrudenhof adventure farm in Cologne pictured standing knee-deep in water on Friday.