ALTENAHR, Germany — Seilbahn Street is named after a chairlift that once started here, lifting tourists across the Ahr river and up the steep valley banks dotted with vineyards.

Though the lift shut down three years ago, visitors still come to the village of Altenahr, about 20 miles south of Bonn, to hike, sample the wines and soak up the rugged landscape.

But the scenic topography also brings danger. In the steep, rocky valley, there is simply no space for the water to spread out when the Ahr swells. The only way is up. That is what happened on the night of July 14 as floodwaters wrought destruction across Germany and Belgium, killing more than 200 people. More than 150 remain missing in Germany.

On Seilbahn Street, whether one lived or died came down to split-second decisions or simple luck: the strength of a home’s foundations, or whether you had three floors instead of two. There were moments of incredible tragedy, but also stirring feats of survival, according to accounts of residents who described the terrifying night when the Ahr swallowed their town.

4 p.m., July 14

No. 33 Seilbahn St.: Teresa and Roger Buchmann

Teresa and Roger Buchmann bought No. 33 in 2014. They were married in the garden a year later. It’s the oldest home on this part of the street, built in the 1950s with three stories and attic, topped with a gray-tiled roof.

They started a bed-and-breakfast on the ground floor called Auf dem Land, or “In the Countryside,” and served their guests fresh eggs and honey from the beehive and little chicken coop decorated with hearts out back. Their daughter, Clara, was born in 2017.

“Life was as good as it could be,” said Teresa, 38, who is originally from Gurnee, Ill., north of Chicago. She settled in Europe after meeting her 36-year-old German husband in Poland in 2011.

She picked up Clara from kindergarten in the afternoon. The rain was torrential, and the neighboring village was already flooding.

During record floods in 2016, the water had reached their patio. So they weren’t particularly worried about the latest warnings. “What we were worried about were our possessions in the yard,” she said. “So we moved everything to the front over there where it was higher. Well, that was the biggest joke of our lives.”

Within a few hours, the Ahr was rushing through the chicken coop and rising up the patio steps. Looking out of the back porch, Clara remarked on how fast it was rising.

“And to my bees,” the girl said. “Everything.”

Teresa Buchmann filmed flooding in the back garden of “Auf dem Land,” the family home and bed and breakfast on the evening of July 14. (Teresa Buchmann)

7 p.m.

No. 22 Seilbahn St.: Lukas, Elmar and Luzia Sermann

Around 7 p.m., it became clear to the Sermann family that their flood preparations had not been enough.

The Sermanns have grown wine in the Ahr Valley for generations, tending to vines of pinot noir, Pinot Madeleine and Germany’s beloved riesling. Lukas, 31, now runs the winery.

Like all properties on this side of Seilbahn Street, their buildings back onto the Ahr, normally just a few feet deep on this bend.

No. 22, with a wooden balcony and pink flowers out front, is where the family sell their wine. Lukas’s parents, Elmar and Luzia, live above the shop, a few doors down from the production warehouse.

With floods expected, Lukas already had moved his car to a higher point on the street, along with the grape press. They raised machinery up on pallets.

But the water was rising fast, and Lukas and Elmar, 61, went out to move some of the equipment farther up the road to safety, leaving Luzia, 58, home at No. 22.

“It escalated very quickly,” said Lukas. The current was too strong to make it back home. The route back into town, also on lower ground, was cut, too.

“It was too strong to get back and too dangerous to get to the center,” he said.

They were stranded and needed shelter.

They had little choice. They clambered on top of their equipment and broke into Ital. Eis-Cafe, the Italian ice cream shop at No. 16.

Luzia was left alone at No. 22 with the family cat, watching the floodwaters creep higher.

After moving their winery equipment to higher ground on July 14, Lukas Sermann and his father were stranded and broke into an ice cream shop for shelter. (Lukas Sermann)
Luzia Sermann was separated from her family and trapped in the house alone with their cat during the flooding on July 14. (Luzia Sermann)

8 p.m.

No. 30 Seilbahn St.: Andreas Pätz

By 8 p.m. down the street at No. 30, Andreas Pätz had moved upstairs at Seilbahn Gaststätte, a restaurant that closed about four years ago, to escape the floodwaters.

Ahead of the flood, Pätz, 61, and a relative had gone to secure the building, putting up a barrier they hoped would protect it. The place had seen better days.

There were still a couple of holiday apartments in the two-story building, though, and one permanent tenant, an 88-year-old woman known to all as Frau Lus. One of her relatives had planned to pick her up but didn’t make it into the village in time.

The homemade flood defenses were quickly submerged. Not long after 8 p.m., the first floor was underwater, and the level was rising fast into the second.

Frau Lus sat on a table so she didn’t have to stand, but the water reached her chest. The building’s flat roof was the only option.

Pätz tried to get out on the terrace so they could climb up, but the current was too strong.

“We had a ladder. I put it out on the terrace to get up on the roof, but the ladder got carried away by the current,” he said. “No chance.”

The water rose up to their necks. “That’s when we were really, really scared, scared for our death,” said Pätz.

But the river brought its own way out. Huge, uprooted trees slammed into the side of the building and clung there. Pätz got out of a window, grabbed onto one, and pulled himself onto the roof. His cousin pushed up Frau Lus and Pätz pulled. They all managed to scramble up.

9 p.m.

No. 33: The Buchmann family

The Buchmann house was slightly higher than other places on the street. But by 9 p.m. the muddy floodwaters had been filling the ground floor for more than an hour.

Teresa Buchmann looked over to check on the neighbors at No. 35. The couple next door were older, in their 70s, and had been their first friends on the street. “They basically were the grandparents for our daughter,” said Teresa.

No. 35 was a little closer to the water. Its front door was already almost completely submerged.

As the waters swelled, the Buchmanns had signaled them to come over. But their neighbors decided to stay put. Now it was too late.

“And then it just kept getting worse and worse and worse,” said Teresa.

Their houses were now effectively in the middle of a raging river. The sound was deafening.

No. 35, which the Buchmanns’ neighbors had built for their riverside retirement, simply could not withstand the force. At 9.43 p.m. Teresa snapped her last picture of her neighbor’s house. The water was up to the upstairs windows. And not long after she watched in horror.

“This house broke away in front of our eyes,” she said, “broke off and floated away.”

They watched it being carried off in the current down their street. They couldn’t see any sign of their friends.

“And we said, ‘Well, that’s the end,’ ” she said. “I assumed they’d died instantly.”

9.50 p.m.

No. 30: Pätz

But they hadn’t.

Down the street on the roof of the old restaurant at No. 30, Pätz saw the house that once stood at No. 35 float past. The owners had somehow managed to climb out and cling onto the roof, he said.

The woman from No. 35 was screaming, her husband gripping on in silence.

“I knew him personally. I was looking at him,” Pätz said. He said he watched, helpless, as what was left of No. 35 crashed into the corner of one of the Sermann family’s winery buildings. It turned and broke apart, jettisoning the couple into the water.

“I couldn’t see those two anymore,” he said. “I couldn’t see or hear anything more from them.”

But he quickly had to focus on his own survival. Exposed to the elements on the roof, Pätz was trying to keep hypothermia at bay. He and his cousin did exercises to stay warm. And the water was still rising up their shins. There was only one higher spot, a red metal chimney covering that sits just a foot or so higher that the roof.

“All of us went onto the chimney,” he said.

Frau Lus sat hunched over on the chimney stack. They regularly took off their soaked clothes and wrung them out, before putting them back on again. They huddled and waited in the ocean of water.

9:55 p.m.

No. 16: The Sermann family

At the ice cream cafe where they’d taken shelter, the Sermann family were witnessing another tragedy.

Lukas and his father, shivering in wet clothes, had wrapped themselves in rugs to try to keep warm. Just before 10 p.m., Lukas looked across the street to the Weineck, a wine shop at No. 15, run by Bodo Laufer, whom neighbors say was in his 80s. He saw him in the window opposite.

“After that everything was full of water and he was gone,” said Lukas.

10:15 p.m.

No. 25 Seilbahn St.: Georgios Papageorgiou

At No. 25, Georgios Papageorgiou had punched through the roof. Papageorgiou, 51, who runs a Greek taverna on the other side of the Ahr with his brother and sister-in-law, didn’t live on the street. He had gone down to Seilbahn Street to check on his brother’s elderly in-laws. He thought he could help pump out their cellar if it flooded.

His 20-year-old twin nephews joined him. So did two of their friends. For some of the younger cohorts, it had seemed exciting at first as the water started spilling into the town.

Papageorgiou said he had wanted to head down to Seilbahn Street alone. “Too many people means too many opinions,” he said. “But they’d wanted to come.”

They had soon become trapped, and forced higher and higher in the house, taking supplies with them. The water broke through the front door and spilled across the parquet floors.

Georgios Papageorgiou filmed from the attic of his home where the water was up to his family’s knees on July 14. (Georgios Papageorgiou)

They were forced into the attic space, where they ripped down the ceiling boards and pushed out the roof tiles.

Sunset had come around 9.30 p.m. As the daylight faded, one of the twins, Niko, pulled out his phone to film the water rising around them. “It’s getting higher,” he said. “Maybe it’ll make it over, over the attics. The roof is caving in here, too.”

The twins and their friends had a few drinks. Their 93-year-old grandfather didn’t have his insulin. Everyone was wet. They tried to save their phone batteries.

11 p.m.

The waters were reaching their high point. But no one on the street knew that.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Teresa Buchmann at No. 33. “Personally I wasn’t so scared about the height of the water. I was scared about the stability of the house.”

They had moved up to the attic, telling their 3-year-old daughter, Clara, that it was a camping trip. They shouted messages of support to their only remaining neighbors at No. 31, who also punched a hole through the roof of their attic.

They tried signaling to passing helicopters and calling the emergency line 33 times. The last time they got through, they were told no one was coming. Teresa would occasionally look out to check the water levels.

“Both of us called our parents and said goodbye,” she said. “I called my mom in America, and said, ‘Sorry I’m not going to make it through this.’ ”

They lay down on the floor and prayed.

In the attic at No. 25, the Papageorgious were also making their goodbye calls.

The Sermanns in the ice cream parlor lost contact with Luzia, two doors down at No. 22, around midnight. The signal had gone. They took some comfort in the fact that the house had a third story.

The neighbors used flashlights and phones to signal each other across the water. It was for solidarity. And to show someone that they were still alive.

5 a.m., July 15

At No. 25, Papageorgiou cheered and clapped when the first light came. He saw that the trio on the top of the gaststätte at No. 30 survived the night. He wasn’t sure they would.

“They were even more lucky than us,” he said.

The waters were receding. At 6 a.m., Papageorgiou filmed himself and his nephews from their hole poking out of the attic. “The survivors,” he said.

On the morning of July 15, Georgios Papageorgiou filmed floodwater beginning to drain. (Georgios Papageorgiou)

When the helicopters finally arrived, the group out on the roof at the old restaurant were airlifted out first — around midday. Papageorgiou and the other six at No. 25 were next.

Other people who broke through their attics were hauled from rooftops. Others had to wait until the floodwaters receded further. With no cellphone coverage, and the village in chaos, it took hours — and in some cases days — before it became clear to the neighbors who had lived and who had died.

For Luzia Sermann at No. 22, she only knew her son and husband were alive when she saw them wading down the street to her. “We practically swam,” said Lukas.

The Buchmanns eventually walked out of No. 33 after about 13 hours trapped in their home. Later that day, Teresa was walking through the village and stopped cold.

“Oh, my God, I lost it,” she said. “Just crying like a baby, hugging him. I thought I was dreaming.”

It was her neighbor from No. 35. He told her what happened after the house was swept away. When it smashed against the winery, he was knocked into the water but managed to grab onto the vines in the vineyard. He was 72 but fit. He practiced karate.

His daughter said he did not want to be interviewed for this article, as he did not want to talk until his wife is found.

“It’s a miracle, there is no other way to put it,” said Teresa. “That is a miracle, and that anyone even survived here. It’s a miracle.”

The aftermath

No one knows precisely how high the floodwaters rose. The instruments to measure water levels were damaged. In 2016, the worst floods in 100 years surged to a peak of around 12 feet. This time, it was about 32 feet, said Cornelia Weigand, the mayor of Altenahr, which has a population of around 1,800 people.

She says she doesn’t know exactly how many people from her municipality died, perhaps around two dozen in all. On Seilbahn Street, at least three people drowned or are presumed dead: a widower at No. 29, the wine shop owner Laufer at No. 15 and the woman from No. 35.

No one is sure what will happen to the houses. Some residents assume they will be razed. The Buchmanns are moving on regardless. They say they can’t stay in their home after what they experienced.

Papageorgiou and his family are trying to fix up their Greek restaurant.

Pätz says the old Seilbahn Gaststätte was on its way out anyway. He doesn’t expect his aunt to try to rebuild.

The Sermanns are trying to start again, but they need the town and the roads to be rebuilt. No one knows how long it will take.

And at No. 35, the neatly trimmed bushes that line the garden path somehow survived but now lead to a bare plot, and just an outline of the house that once stood there.

Katharina Köll contributed to this report. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard.

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