March 4. 2024. 8:35

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Hamburg attack: Shock mixed with relief after shooting spree ends with eight dead

When Bernd Miesbach returned to his northern Hamburg home at 10pm on Thursday, his street was sealed off and three police officers were questioning his son, Gregor.

An hour earlier the 17-year-old heard a bang from the grandly named Kingdom Hall, a plain office block opposite occupied by a local branch of the Jehova’s Witnesses.

“I didn’t even realise what exactly was happening in the moment,” said Gregor after his clip went viral. “Filming with my mobile it was only through the zoom that I realised someone was shooting.”

What he had filmed was 35-year-old man Philipp Fusz on a shooting spree.

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Within five minutes, he shot dead four men and two women, aged between 33 and 60, and left eight more seriously injured, including a seven-months pregnant woman who lost her baby.

Some 36 people had gathered for a prayer meeting in the hall, with another 25 watching online, when Fusz – a disgruntled former congregation member – burst in around 9:04pm.

The first emergency call had already reached police after he fired 10 times outside at a woman inside a parked car who escaped unharmed.

Five minutes later a rapid-reaction team arrived at the scene. Hearing the hail of fire inside – Fusz fired 135 rounds in total – they shot open the lock and caught sight of lifeless bodies and an armed man disappearing upstairs. Out of sight, with a final shot, he took his life. In a rucksack, there were further rounds of ammunition.

At a press conference on Friday, Hamburg’s senator for interior affairs, Andy Grote, said the “very, very quick and determined intervention” prevented an even greater bloodbath.

“We have not had a mass attack of this magnitude,” he added, “it’s the worst crime in our city’s recent history.”

Matthias Tresp, head of the rapid-reaction team that was at the scene within five minutes agreed: “The immediate action saved many lives.”

Thursday evening’s gun attack was the first major test of a new emergency cell broadcast system, which sent messages to people in the area urging them to stay indoors.

Police say the gunman, raised in strictly religious family in Bavaria but living in Hamburg since 2015, was a business consultant who left the Jehovah’s Witness congregation 18 months ago after a disagreement.

Last year, in a self-published book, the gunman argued that “God, Jesus Christ and Satan ... have feelings, just as we humans do, and therefore also act partly impulsively out of feelings”.

In December he applied for a marksman licence for a Heckler & Koch P30 handgun which was granted, despite an anonymous tip-off that he had psychological problems and “particular anger towards ... the Jehova’s Witnesses”.

Acting on the tip-off last month, two police officers paid Fusz a surprise visit. He made a positive impression and had a clean criminal record, giving them no grounds to take away his weapon. Searching his home early on Friday police found 15 loaded magazines and 200 more rounds of ammunition.

On a sleety afternoon in the quiet residential street adjacent to the hall, local woman Sabine Fischer says her border collie Bella alerted her to the gunshots.

“I thought it was kids with fireworks but then my children phoned and the warnings came on my phone,” she said. “There were police lights and officers with machine guns everywhere. I was just glad to have Bella for company.”

As the light faded on Friday, nearly 24 hours later, her neighbour Bernd Miebach said the shock was only beginning to sink in, mixed with guilty relief that the attack wasn’t even worse.

“To be honest I feel more terrible today than yesterday evening,” said Bernd Miesbach to The Irish Times, “having this all so close to us.”