Longtime Austin resident Russell Schulz-Widmar was sipping mulled wine with friends Monday in Berlin when a holiday get-together erupted into chaos.
Schulz-Widmar, a composer who lived in Austin for more than 40 years and taught music for 36 years at the Seminary of the Southwest, was among the scores injured in the Berlin Christmas market attack that has claimed the lives of 12 people, including one of Schulz-Widmar’s friends.
Schulz-Widmar and two friends had been at the Christmas market for about an hour. He said they were each on their third glass of wine and speaking with two tourists when he heard something odd.
“There were screams,” Schulz-Widmar told the American-Statesman on Wednesday in a telephone interview from Berlin. “There was this truck and when he got to our cabin he drove right through where we were sitting. He drove through us all, and the cabin was completely destroyed.”
What followed was a blur of screams and crashing.
“I thought I was going to die because all this stuff was being forced over my body and past me,” Schulz-Widmar said. “I was under the rubble when I came to and realized I had survived.”
A stranger helped pull him from the debris. Somehow, he escaped with only minor injuries to his hands, which he believes resulted from him trying to push the rubble off of his body.
Then he realized that two people who had been sitting 3 feet from him had been killed.
His friend Peter Volker, who he met in Austin in 2008, was one of them, Schulz-Widmar said. He could see his other friend, Volker’s partner Richard Ramirez, weeping in the street. But they were soon separated in the ensuing chaos.
“There were dead bodies in the street, and people fighting for their lives,” he said. “It was life and death for them.”
With so many critically injured, police at the scene suggested Schulz-Widmar take a taxi to a hospital. He met with his partner, who hadn’t been with him at the market, and they went to a hospital. There, Schulz-Widmar was treated and released, but therapists approached him soon after to help him deal with the trauma.
Schulz-Widmar, who moved to Berlin in 2011 after retiring from the Seminary of the Southwest, said he will head to East Frisia near the Netherlands in a planned vacation that therapists encourage he not cancel. There, he said, he hopes the quiet and peace will help him begin healing.
His interview with the Statesman, he said, was the first time he’d been able to recount the events without bursting into tears. The healing has begun, he said. But it’s a long journey.
“I cannot get out of my mind the screams, the faces of the dead people, the truck going over us and all the debris,” Schulz-Widmar said. “No one is prepared for that.”