Berlin's Frenzied Fireworks Have Locals Leaving, Hiding On New Year's

For about eight hours on New Year's Eve, Berlin sounds like a war zone with thousands of people taking to the streets to shoot off fireworks — and not just into the air. Subways, passing cars and even pedestrians are also targets. Many residents choose to leave the city because of the noise and danger. Those who remain tend to stay indoors because it isn't safe outside. The launching of most of these fireworks is illegal and hundreds of people are injured and maimed. Half of them are innocent bystanders. Yet Berlin police rarely intervene on this night. Officials say there is little they can do to stop what's become a dangerous tradition in the German capital.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

New Year's Eve in Berlin is a big draw for tourists from around the world. Revelers pack the streets around the Brandenburg Gate and greet the stroke of midnight with music, champagne and mulled wine. But for many residents of the German capital, the holiday can be a frightening and often dangerous experience. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, thousands of people armed with fireworks transform the city's streets into what feels like a war zone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: This National Archives reel captures what Berlin sounded like when the Allies attacked the city at the end of World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBING)

NELSON: On New Year's Eve nearly seven decades later, it's sometimes hard to hear the difference.

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NELSON: There are fireworks and firecrackers being lobbed in all directions around here. And there are flocks of birds tearing past at high speeds to try and escape the noise. I don't see anybody on the streets other than those making the racket.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

NELSON: Berlin resident Jaime Sperberg says every New Year's the noise is worse than the year before. He heads the German chapter of Silent Night, a citizen's group that wants to rein in the use of pyrotechnics here.

JAIME SPERBERG: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Sperberg says older Berlin residents are especially upset by the noise, in part because of their experiences here during the war. He and many others end up leaving the city over New Year's Eve whenever possible to escape the chaos. The Berlin Fire Department doubles its number of firemen on duty on this night.

STEPHAN FLEISHCER: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Spokesman Stephan Fleischer says they responded to 1,500 calls over nine hours during last year's New Year celebrations. He adds a third of the calls were for injuries ranging from mild burns to amputations caused by fireworks. Firefighter Anyetei Adjei blames the craziness on a combination of alcohol and explosives.

ANYETEI ADJEI: They are acting like you've got to fight for your right to party in a way cut to here. They are totally out of control, just for maybe three, four hours.

NELSON: Berlin Police spokesman Stefan Redlich says his department fields more calls on New Year's Eve than any other night during the year. But there are few arrests. He says that's because it's legal to buy and launch fireworks and firecrackers, at least the German-made kind. Redlich says more problematic for Berlin police is the popular, but illegal firecrackers brought here from nearby Poland.

STEFAN REDLICH: The appeal is that they make more impact, they make more noise, they blow a small crater in the ground. It's more of a grenade than a firecracker cut to here. But, you know, there are always some people who think the normal firecrackers are not as much fun as they want to have.

NELSON: Redlich says earlier this month police confiscated 1,300 pounds of illegal fireworks from one Berlin dealer who intended to distribute them across Germany. But he opposes any major crackdown on Berlin's noisy New Year.

REDLICH: The fireworks are there to chase away the ghosts of the old year, so it's a nice tradition and you should not look only at things from the security standpoint.

NELSON: It's a tradition Sperberg of the Silent Night initiative says should be experienced in moderation.

SPERBERG: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says his group is pushing for fireworks and firecrackers to be limited to certain areas of the city, preferably away from people's homes. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

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