The story was so outrageous, many doubted it could be true — “Hailstones shooting out the toilet? Nahh. Gotta be a hoax.” When I published “Cold Comfort” a few days ago, it stirred up quite a controversy. So I dug a little deeper.
My original source for the story was a humorous item published in Britain’s Private Eye (PE) magazine. Journalist Victor Lewis-Smith had, in turn, used the Austrian Times (AT) as his source — having apparently been alerted to the story by one “Mal Function”. Mmm. Just as I was ready to post “Cold Comfort” I found an online version of the AT story, dated 21 July 2008. It included some photographs of a bathroom apparently with piles of hailstones all over the floor. One of the photos had also been used as half of a composite photo comprising two pictures of what was evidently the same bathroom, on another blog web site, which included another photo of a hand holding some giant hailstones, which wasn’t featured on the AT site. I used the composite photo and the hand holding the hailstones to help illustrate my typed-out version of the PE story.
After I’d posted “Cold Comfort”, I read the AT story properly. It differs from the PE story in a number of respects. For example, while the AT begins by saying that Martin Bierbauer is demanding substantial damages after he was blasted off the toilet when hundreds of thousands of hail stones exploded out of it, there’s no mention in the online AT story that Bierbauer said he was “anally damaged” — which helped give the PE story such a mirthful angle. There’s also no mention of him “attempting to pass a stool”, which was included in the first line of his “quote” in the PE story but which I left out in my version as I felt it was unnecessarily graphic.
Here’s what he was quoted as saying in PE: “I was sitting on the toilet in my apartment, attempting to pass a stool, when the pipes began rumbling. The noise got so loud that I decided to cut short my visit, but before I could pull my trousers up, hailstones the size of golf balls started exploding out of the toilet bowl, like a popcorn machine gone berserk. I grabbed a piece of board and tried to put it over the toilet, but the pressure was so great that I couldn’t hold it down. Within minutes, there was an avalanche of ice that filled the toilet, then the bathroom, the entire flat, and eventually the entire building. I got the hell out real fast, still adjusting my clothing, and other residents were doing the same, with hailstones following us down the staircase. It’s a disgrace. I was blown clean off the lavatory, and anally damaged. I am demanding substantial damages for my ordeal.”
Compare this with what he’s quoted, rather less sensationally, as saying in the AT: “I heard the pipes rumbling a bit, and suddenly hailstones the size of golf balls started exploding out of the toilet like it was a popcorn machine. There was an avalanche of ice that quickly filled the toilet, then the entire flat, and eventually the entire building. I ran down the stairs with the hailstones following me, and other residents did the same.”
Perhaps, if there’s a printed version of the AT, it differed from the online version, which may explain the discrepancy.
The wooden board that can be seen in one of the bathroom photographs (see right), which some readers assumed was a ceiling tile, or part of the ceiling construction — indicating, perhaps, that the hailstones had gained ingress to the bathroom via a collapsed ceiling rather than through the toilet, leading them to conclude the “hailstones up the toilet” part of the story was a hoax — appears to have belonged to another apartment resident, Sylvia Striet. The bathroom in the photos may therefore have been Sylvia’s, not Martin’s. Why would Sylvia keep a wooden board in her bathroom? All will become clearer in a moment, but in the AT, she’s quoted as saying: “I grabbed a board and put it over the toilet, but the pressure was so great, I ended up sitting on the board as the hail flowed through the flat and down the stairs.”
It seems, on this reading, that the PE version amalgamated Beirbauer’s statement with some of Striet’s comments, attributing it all to Bierbauer.
A further discrepancy, and the one that was most relevant to the story as far as I’m concerned, was this: in the PE version, local council spokesman Wolfgang Leinner was attributed with the statement that Freak weather conditions led the temperature to plunge from 35 degrees centigrade to zero within a few hours, and as a result severe hail storms battered parts of the country. (My emphasis.) The AT version says, without actually attributing the quote to anyone: Freak weather has led to temperatures of over 35 degrees centigrade in Austria which a few days later plunge to near zero as freak hail storms batter the country. (Again, my emphasis.)
This is an important difference. My prime reason for posting the story — apart from it being a humorous read — was that such a temperature drop over a few hours would have been most unusual and a warning of what’s to come when our climate suddenly ‘flips’ into a cooler state. On the other hand, if the temperature drop occurred over a few days, then this was hardly as dramatic and unusual an event as I originally thought. (However, the resulting heavy fall of hail, as an example of the kind of ‘freak’ weather conditions we can expect during and after a climate ‘flip’, still stands out as an impressive event.)
It wasn’t long before some comments were left on my “Cold Comfort” post. Paul Martin: I cry bullshit…..total……idiots qwerty: I’m calling bullshit, the sewer and storm water are separate systems, and why would there be hail stones? why would they be round? BenThere: This is totally shopped. [He means the photos were created using PhotoShop.] I can tell by the pixels and because I have seen many shops in my time.
Many other people who’ve come across this story here and on other blogs and news sites have indicated they feel the story is faked — including Empress, who left a thumbs-down for my version of the story at StumbleUpon, commenting that (a) it wasn’t original and (b) it was bullshit anyway. I replied to qwerty by way of a comment, and asked BenThere to provide the evidence that makes him think the photos are bogus. He hasn’t replied. I also asked Empress in an e-mail to explain what convinces her the story is bullshit. She kindly replied: Well, to be perfectly honest, there is no physical evidence, except for what visually appears to be a ceiling tile laying in the floor, and the lack of damage to the toilet. It looks to me like it was ceiling cave in! It is just an opinion, but as far as I am concerned, its the only one that matters!
I wanted to try and track down more news about the weather conditions that caused the storm — did it even occur? If it did, then at least it added weight to the credibility of the story.
Two of the photos included on the AT site were date stamped 7th July 2008, presumably the day of the storm. Using this as a starting-point, I searched for information. I eventually found a German web site which had what I wanted. A Google translation of the page was quite unhelpful, so I enlisted the help of my voice-over colleague Michelle Horn to provide a translation.
On 7th July 2008, burgenland.orf.at carried this report:
HAIL THUNDERSTORM AROUND THE NORDBURGENLAND
Hagelgewitter über dem Nordburgenland
A huge thunderstorm with wind, rain and hail hit the Nordburgenland in Austria on Monday afternoon. At about 3.30pm a total of 17 fire brigades were called into action.
Ein Gewitter mit Sturm, Regen und Hagel ist am Montagnachmittag über das Nordburgenland gezogen. Gegen 15.30 Uhr waren insgesamt 17 Feuerwehren im Einsatz.
MANY CELLARS PUMPED OUT
After a few minutes break, the storm hit again. The firefighters in Eisenstadt, Neufeld, Rust and Gols, and in the district of Mattersburg, had to pump the water out of several cellars. Due to the vast amount of rainfall, the drains became flooded. The majority of the emergency callouts were in the district capital itself.
Schon nach wenigen Minuten hatte sich der Sturm wieder gelegt. Allerdings mussten die Feuerwehrleute dann in Eisenstadt, Neufeld, Rust, aber auch Gols (Bez. Neusiedl am See) und im Bezirk Mattersburg etliche Keller auspumpen. Der Kanal konnte die großen Regenmengen in der kurzen Zeit nicht aufnehmen. Die meisten Einsätze waren in der Landeshauptstadt zu verzeichnen.
Due to the drains overflowing, the majority of the Neusiedler Strasse was under water. The district of St Georgen became littered with a 15 centimetre high layer of hailstones. The fire brigade were on hand to assist and document all the damage caused.
Auf der Neusiedler Straße konnten die Kanäle die Wassermassen nicht mehr aufnehmen, mindestens 25 Objekte stehen unter Wasser. Der Ortsteil St. Georgen wurde von einer 15 Zentimeter hohen Hagelschicht übersät. Die Feuerwehr steht im Einsatz und dokumentiert alle Schäden.
HELP FROM NEIGHBOURING TOWNS
Unterstützung aus den Nachbarorten
The firefighters had to pump out numerous cellars in Eisenstadt and received support from the neighbouring villages of Trausdorf and Wulkaproders.
Die Feuerwehrleute mussten zahlreiche Keller in Eisenstadt auspumpen und erhielten Unterstützung von den benachbarten Wehren aus Trausdorf und Wulkaprodersdorf (beide Bez. Eisenstadt Umg.).
LIGHTNING IN RUST
Blitzeinschlag in Rust
In Saint Margarethen, a tree struck by lightning fell onto the road. In Rust, a fire in a wooden hut may have also been caused by lightning. In both incidents no one was hurt.
In St. Margarethen war ein Baum auf die Fahrbahn gestürzt und in Rust dürfte eine Holzhütte durch Blitzschlag in Brand geraten sein. Verletzt wurde dabei niemand
STILL NO ALL-CLEAR
Noch keine Entwarnung
The ORF-weather editorial staff is still yet to give the all-clear. The storms are still set to continue for at least one to two hours more.
Die ORF-Wetterredaktion gibt noch keine Entwarnung, die Unwetter werden noch mindestens ein bis zwei Stunden andauern.
– burgenland.orf.at, 7th July 2008
So there was a storm, and a particularly bad one, on the day in question. The same German site carried a further helpful report ten days later, on 17th July 2008, which shed further light on the origins of the “Cold Comfort” story (once again, translation kindly provided by Michelle Horn):
HAIL CAME OUT OF THE LOO — WHO IS TO BLAME?
Hagel kam aus dem Klo: Wer ist schuld?
During a thunder storm, a house in Eisenstadt had hail like popcorn pushed out of the toilet. The residents turned to the house management, who put the main blame on the town council.
Während eines Unwetters wurde in einer Eisenstädter Wohnhausanlage Hagel wie Popcorn aus Toiletten gedrückt. Die Bewohner wandten sich an die Hausverwaltung, die die Hauptschuld bei der Stadtgemeinde sieht.
THE PRESSURE WAS SO GREAT
Druck war zu groß
Unbelievable scenes played out in an Eisenstadt house at the beginning of July after the hail storm of the century. The sewage system of the house and the public drain couldn’t cope with the water and mass of hail. The pressure in the pipes was so great that the hail was pushed through the house’s toilet like popcorn.
Unglaubliche Szenen spielten sich beim Jahrhundert-Hagelunwetter Anfang Juli in einer Eisenstädter Wohnhausanlage ab. Das Abwassersystem des Hauses und der öffentliche Kanal konnten den Wasser- und Hagelmassen nicht mehr Herr werden. Der Druck in den Rohren war so groß, dass der Hagel in einigen Wohungen regelrecht wie Popkorn aus den Wohnungstoiletten gedrückt wurde.
On the 7th July at 3pm in Eisenstadt, the sky fell down. Flood-type rain fell and golf ball-sized hail blocked the sewage system and transformed the street into a torrential stream. Also in Tinhof Street the owners believed the world appeared to be going under, admittedly not at the door, but directly in the house.
Am 7. Juli um 15.00 Uhr schien in Eisenstadt der Himmel herabzufallen: Sintflutartige Regenfälle und Hagelkörner in Golfballgröße verstopften sofort die Abwassersysteme und verwandelten die Straßen in reißende Bäche. Auch in der Tinhofstraße glaubten die Bewohner, die Welt scheine unterzugehen, allerdings nicht vor der Tür, sondern direkt in den Wohnungen.
“It started when we heard gurgling in the loo. We knew then that water was coming. In this case, I prepared myself with a plank so that I could put it on top and sit on it. I fell off together with the plank when the ice came. I could only escape,” said tenant Sylvia Streit.
“Es fängt immer so an, dass man Gurgeln hört in der Toilette. Da wissen wir schon, es kommt das Wasser. In diesem Fall habe ich mir ein Brett hergerichtet, damit ich es dichtend drauflege und mich draufsetze. Ich bin mitsamt dem Brett runtergefallen, als das Eis gekommen ist. Ich konnte nur mehr flüchten”, so Mieterin Sylvia Streit.
DISPOSED OF WITH SNOW SHOVELS
Per Schneeschaufel entsorgt
Without the help of neighbours and snow shovels, the situation wouldn’t have been sorted. The mass of hail was put in the bath with snow shovels.
Ohne Nachbarschaftshilfe und Schneeschaufeln wäre man der Situation nicht Herr geworden. Die Hagelmassen wurden mit der Schneeschaufel in die Badewanne befördert.
“It came out like a spring. I am not weak, but I really tried with my whole strength to hold it back and in spite of it, the water still came out around my fingers,” said tenant Martin Bierbauer. “We fear it every time rain is forecast.”
“Es kommt wie ein Springbrunnen heraus. Ich bin nicht schwach, aber ich habe wirklich mit ganzer Kraft dagegenhalten müssen, und trotzdem ist das Wasser neben den Fingern herausgekommen”, so Mieter Martin Bierbauer. “Wir füchten uns jedesmal, wenn Regen angesagt ist”.
DAMPNESS IN THE WHOLE HOUSE
Feuchtigkeit im ganzen Haus
For more than two weeks, the residents have fought against dampness in the whole house. The problem with the sewage system was known by the house management already last year, but since then nothing has happened. After the extreme events of early July the thing is now being looked into.
Seit etwas mehr als zwei Wochen kämpfen die Bewohner nun mit der Feuchtigkeit im ganzen Haus. Das Problem mit dem Abwassersystem war der Hausverwaltung bereits im Vorjahr bekannt, doch seither ist nichts passiert. Nach den extremen Auswirkungen Anfang Juli kommt die Sache nun ins Rollen.
SOLUTIONS ARE BEING LOOKED FOR
Lösungsansätze werden gesucht
“I understand that things should happen quicker. We reckon in the next four weeks we can start the first activities and find solutions,” said Franz Gebhardt from the new Eisenstadt House Estate Association.
“Ich verstehe, dass das alles viel schneller gehen sollte. Es ist so, dass wir in den nächsten vier Wochen rechnen, dass wir die ersten Aktivitäten setzen können und Lösungansätze haben”, sagte Franz Gebhardt von der Neuen Eisenstädter Siedlungsgenossenschaft.
TOWN: PUBLIC DRAIN IS SUFFICIENT
Stadt: Öffentlicher Kanal ist ausreichend
“We don’t know 100% how it happened. What we do know is that the drain has sufficient dimensions. Solutions are now going to be worked out how we can better hold back the rain water,” said Wolfgang Leinner, the building director of Eisenstadt Council.
“Wir wissen es noch nicht hundertprozentig, woran das gelegen hat. Fest steht, dass der öffentliche Kanal ausreichend dimensioniert ist. Es werden jetzt Lösungen ausgearbeitet, die darauf abzielen, das Regenwasser verbessert rückhalten zu können”, so Wolfgang Leinner, der Baudirektor der Stadtgemeinde Eisenstadt.
– burgenland.orf.at, 17th July 2008
So this establishes that the violent storm was real — and that the problem with the drains backing up at the apartment is a regular occurrence. The residents are so used to it, at least one of them keeps a wooden board handy to try and prevent water flooding up through their toilet and into their home whenever it rains heavily. Martin Bierbauer’s comment that I really tried with my whole strength to hold it back and in spite of it, the water still came out around my fingers suggests that he too, like Sylvia, keeps a board to hand for just such events, so perhaps the quote in PE, where he talks about using a board, was essentially correct after all. The second report also establishes the provenance of the composite photograph (the two shots of the bathroom full of hail): it came from this site. Having established the reality of the storm and the regularity with which the drains back up, I believe it can now be said with certainty that none of the pictures were PhotoShopped simply to create a hoax. As astonishing as it seems, the event really happened.
The only part of the PE story that doesn’t seem to come from anywhere I’ve yet found is the lengthy quote from Local council spokesman Wolfgang Leinner who explained what had happened to the building in Tinhof Strasse. “Freak weather conditions led the temperature to plunge from 35 degrees centigrade to zero within a few hours, and as a result severe hail storms battered parts of the country. In this case, the hailstones flooded a local drain and blocked it. More hailstones fell, the pressure was too great, and because they had nowhere else to go, they forced their way up through the building’s plumbing and out through the toilets. They soon melted, but unfortunately the mixture of water and raw sewage has now made the building uninhabitable.” He is quoted in the 17th July story above as saying: “We don’t know 100% how it happened. What we do know is that the drain has sufficient dimensions. Solutions are now going to be worked out how we can better hold back the rain water”, and in the AT on 21st July as saying: “The pressure was too great, the hailstones had to go somewhere and they came out through the toilets it seems.”
I’ve also been unable to establish the provenance of the photo I used in ‘Cold Comfort’, featuring a man’s hand holding some giant hailstones. It may have nothing to do with the original story — but as an example of how large some hailstones can be, it’s pretty impressive.
Finally, at the burgenland.orf.at site, there’s a streaming video of Sylvia Striet and Martin Bierbauer talking about their ordeal. Looking carefully at the glimpses of Sylvia’s loo in the video and comparing it to the above photographs of the toilet, it’s clear that, as I suggested above when discussing the ownership of the wooden board, it is Sylvia’s loo, not Martin’s, in the pictures. His has no shelving on the back wall next to the toilet, whereas Sylvia’s does.
Real people. Real photos. Real storm. Real event. QED.
Read my Climate Change posts in chronological order by using the Climate Change Log.
(The Austrian Times and burgenland sites are owned by the same company (the Austrian Times story bears the legend © ORF Burgenland). All photgraphs and text from its sites are therefore probably © ORF. The cartoon and Private Eye quotes are © Private Eye magazine. All are used without permission, but I hope all parties won’t object for the purposes of this review.)