Sylvia Westall started working as a trainee correspondent for Reuters in London in 2006. Based in Berlin and Vienna for the past eight months, she travelled to Amstetten, Austria to cover the story of Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter in a cellar for 24 years and fathered seven children by her.
AMSTETTEN, Austria (Reuters) - Elisabeth Fritzl has been locked in a windowless cellar in Austria for roughly the same amount of time I have been alive.
When she escaped, she told police about the 24 years she spent imprisoned beneath the family home during which she had given birth to seven children by her father Josef.
It fell to me to travel to the small north Austrian town of Amstetten to report the story. I doubted it was true.
The grey concrete building beneath which 73-year-old Fritzl hid his abuses was 10 minutes’ walk from the central town square paved in light stone and decked with flowers, its drab facade on a busy main road heading out of town towards rich green hills.
Further down the road from the block, children played in a large open garden and adults basked on deckchairs in the sun.
It was the back of the building on Ybbsstrasse that everyone wanted to see. “Down there. It’s a bloody circus,” a cameraman directed me, pointing down a smart residential street lined with small houses in pink, cream and white.
A helicopter thudding overhead, I walked down the road crammed with TV satellite vans and swarming with journalists, black cables and dazed residents peering over garden fences.
I expected residents to be embarrassed to talk to me. But everyone wanted to talk. All the time. Spying my notebook, people even came up to me when I was queuing for the toilet or kneeling on the pavement scrabbling in my bag.
“I think I might have seen him once,” an elegantly dressed older lady whispered. “Have you seen the children, what do they look like?” another passer-by inquired.
By the house, they lined up to appear in front of the cameras.
I talked to people down the road from the Fritzl’s home, on a street lined with busy cafes, a florist and a tattoo parlor.
Outside a community centre, gangly male teenagers filed in and out, stopping to pinch the cheek of a small boy who looked up admiringly at them from the doorway.
Many people were helpful, like the hotel manager dismayed to find out I wasn’t in Amstetten on holiday but there to litter her lobby with notes.
Over three days we learnt how Fritzl had burnt the body of one child in a furnace after it died soon after birth. How he had forced his daughter to write a letter saying not to look for her.
How the walls of the basement were decorated with paper stars.
At the low metal gate to the back of the block, a policeman bored with answering the same tiresome questions gave me a wary look. Yes, the cellar is down there by the back, and no, I am not going to let you see the entrance to it.
Like everyone else I wanted to know how Fritzl had managed to hide his daughter and three of her children for so long in the specially constructed bunker.
It had a reinforced concrete door, concealed behind shelves. In some places the cellar was no more than 1.70 meters (5 foot 6 inches) high.
At news conferences crammed into family-run local hotels, officials looked shaken. I felt sorry for the softly spoken doctor of the family, less at ease than the others as he leaned forward and murmured into the microphones.
He seemed genuinely pleased to describe the clinic’s improvised birthday party for one of the children, and the “astonishing” first meeting between Fritzl’s two families.
But a comment from the more composed investigator, Franz Polzer, was unexpectedly telling.
Asked about the relationship of the children to the parents and the daughter he paused briefly before saying: “Could you clarify your question?”
I saw the problem. I had already scribbled the Fritzl family tree on a piece of paper to stop me from getting muddled up. Not only was Josef the father and grandfather of his children, but Elisabeth was also her children’s sister.
Four days after arriving in Amstetten, I was relieved to head back to Vienna. I told my dad about it on the phone and cried.
Editing by Sara Ledwith