By Erika Solomon
Dec. 16, 2022
BERLIN — The entrance to the five-star hotel looked like a bomb site. Mangled Christmas decorations, twisted poles and window frames, even tiny shampoo bottles littered the street — and among them, the bodies of the blast’s victims: nearly 1,500 tropical fish from a 50-foot tank called the AquaDom.
Any sea creatures that survived the initial blast of the cylindrical AquaDom, billed as the largest tank of its kind in the world, had little hope of rescue. In frigid, 19 degrees Fahrenheit weather, they lay frozen on the street outside the Radisson Hotel, in Berlin’s central Alexanderplatz.
“It’s a tragedy for the fish,” said Markus Kamrad, an official at the Berlin Senate responsible for animal protection. “We were lucky that it happened at a time that only two people were slightly injured. But it’s unfortunate, of course, that so many fish died.”
The tank burst at 5:45 a.m., rescue services said. Had it happened later in the day, the result could have been human tragedy, too.
The AquaDom, in the center of the hotel atrium, had a diameter of 38 feet and was wrapped around a glass elevator, where visitors could view the sea life inside. Police officers at the scene shook their heads at the thought of what could have awaited them had the tank broken just a few hours later in the day.
The AquaDom aquarium in 2015 in the Radisson atrium. Its makers have described it as the largest cylindrical free-standing aquarium in the world.Credit...Jörg Carstensen/Picture Alliance, via Getty Images
Even hours after the AquaDom burst, an entire block of the street outside the building remained soaked by 264,000 gallons of water that rushed out of the lobby, uprooting plants and ripping out telephones that lay strewn among hundreds of chocolate balls from a neighboring Lindt chocolate shop, also battered by the force of a wave of water that local media estimated would have weighed about 100 tons.
The impact of the water erupting onto the street was so powerful that local seismographs picked up on it. Several shops nearby were damaged — with chairs upturned and windows shattered.
The police have said they have no suspicion of foul play. Local media said the cause was likely a technical fault.
In the early afternoon, a special rescue unit of Berlin firefighters rushed to the scene, wearing hard hats and equipped with carabiners and ropes: They were going to scale the top of the tank, and descend deep into the building’s basement.
“We have to pump out a mass of water. We have to check and completely stabilize the building here. Also — and this is our No. 1 priority right now — we have to save the living fish that are in the basement,” said James Klein, spokesman for the Berlin Fire Department.
After initially assuming all of the fish had died in the blast, local officials and fire services learned that there were hundreds of others in the building’s basement. A few coral reef fish at the very base of the shattered AquaDom had also survived in a remaining pool of water.
Mr. Kamrad said the fish were now being removed, tank by tank, to the nearby Sea Life aquariums. Local veterinary practices, he said, were also preparing aquariums in case more fish housing was needed.
“The good news is that we really were able to save many protected and rare species,” he said, among them some breeds of snails and tilapia, and several types of cichlid fish.
The few guests who remained outside the building in the morning, waiting for a chance to re-enter to search for their things, seemed hardly reassured by the good fortune of the basement fish. One woman, who asked not to be identified because she said she was in shock, said she still could not believe that no one had been killed.
The hotel released a statement saying it was trying to determine what caused the aquarium to burst.
“Members of our leadership team are on site, and, together with the authorities, are looking into the cause of the incident,” the statement said. “We have immediately closed the hotel until further notice and are relocating guests.”
About 100 firefighters responded to the scene, cordoning off the intersection outside the Radisson as they checked for structural damage and evacuated guests. The two people who were taken to the hospital were cut by shards of glass from the burst tank.
Some of the fish from the hotel on Friday.
The AquaDom was built in the hotel in 2003, and promised visitors that they could “discover Nemo, Dory and many other colorful fish up close.” It housed clown fish and angel fish, trigger fish and parrot fish, among many other kinds.
The makers of the AquaDom described it as the largest cylindrical free-standing aquarium in the world. The tank had only recently been renovated and reopened to the public.
Fabian Hellbusch, a spokesman for the real estate company that owns the aquarium, Union Investment, said the reason the tank burst was “not yet clear.”
He added, “We are currently trying to get a more detailed picture of the situation and the damage caused in coordination with the police and fire department on site.”
A video made by Sandra Weeser, a member of the federal Parliament who was staying at the hotel, showed the wreckage of the giant tank amid mangled debris.
In an interview on local television, Ms. Weeser described waking up to a shock wave that she thought was a small earthquake before falling back asleep.
When she got up an hour later, she was guided by fire rescuers out of the building, where she spotted a parrot fish, frozen to death.
“It’s a picture of devastation,” she said.
Christopher Schuetze contributed reporting.