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BERLIN – Berlin stall holder Axel Kaiser recalls hearing a "dull bang" and seeing a nearby wooden Christmas market stand smashed to pieces by a truck. In the next few minutes, he helped tend to dozens of shocked visitors.
Three days later, he couldn't wait to get back to work Thursday at his Weihnachtsterrasse (Christmas terrace) hut, declaring that those behind the Monday night rampage won't be allowed to "determine when, where or how we celebrate."
Some 120 guests were enjoying a private party Monday evening at Kaiser's wooden cabin when a truck driven by an attacker hit the market outside Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. It tore down Christmas trees and smashed up other stands before coming to a halt just 7 meters (23 feet) away.
"It could have hit me, my terrace and my guests. Or if it had driven on, as you see, there would certainly have been more casualties," Kaiser told The Associated Press as he pointed to where the attack took place.
A friend's stand opposite his hut was completely demolished.
"It was a dull bang, not an explosion like a gas explosion but a dull bang," Kaiser said. "My friend's hut, I couldn't see it, it wasn't there. So of course there was a moment of panic."
"I ran down but it didn't register with me in that moment just what had happened," he said. "I thought it was an accident."
Kaiser's friend was off work sick on Monday, but had left a colleague in charge. Kaiser and a friend pulled her out of the rubble.
"She was relatively unscathed," Kaiser said. "I don't know how she made it out of there. The whole truck must have driven through the stand. She herself can't remember a thing. She stood up and said she needed a Schnapps."
Kaiser then evacuated his own guests and turned his hut — one of the few with heaters — over to emergency services to tend to the injured. Kaiser and his staff also handed out warm drinks, trying to make people as comfortable as possible.
"Everyone did it. It was what we had to do," said Kaiser, who helped tend to up to 50 people.
On Thursday, police placed concrete blocks around the Christmas market to provide extra security as it reopened. Even so, Kaiser said heightened security doesn't mean complete security.
"How do you protect a Christmas market, a shopping center, a football stadium?" he asked. "You have to open every bag, every rucksack. They can't do that (here)."
"If someone has the criminal will to cause trouble with a truck or with a bomb, then you can't stop it," he said.
The church that the market surrounds, with its spire damaged in World War II, symbolizes the city's turbulent history. After the war, it became one of West Berlin's main landmarks, sitting at one end of the Kurfuerstendamm shopping boulevard.
"Berlin will not change. Berliners won't allow it," Kaiser said. "There's a short pause for reflection, then the Berliner wipes his hands, and life carries on. It's the special mentality here."
Mourners and well-wishers have been laying flowers, lighting candles and leaving tributes to the victims at the site. Kaiser said he spoke with many of them and "didn't hear the word 'fear' once."
"They're sad, they're angry, but they're not afraid," he said.
The market was subdued Thursday out of respect for the victims — no bright lights or party music — but Kaiser predicted eventually it would get back to normal.
"We can't allow these idiots determine when, where or how we celebrate," he said.