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'The world has tried to reconcile her portrait with the ghoulish vision of how she was found'

As people puzzle over the death of Kim Wall, Phoebe Luckhurst builds a picture of the Swedish journalist and the inventor on whose submarine she was last seen


Mysterious death: journalist Kim Wall was found dead in the waters near Copenhagen

Mysterious death: journalist Kim Wall was found dead in the waters near Copenhagen

Peter Madsen

Peter Madsen

Distressing story: the submarine boarded by journalist Kim Wall and Peter Madsen

Distressing story: the submarine boarded by journalist Kim Wall and Peter Madsen


Mysterious death: journalist Kim Wall was found dead in the waters near Copenhagen

In late summer, the sun sets around 8.30pm in Copenhagen. So it was still light at 7pm on August 10, when journalist Kim Wall boarded the submarine UC3 Nautilus, moored at Refshaleoen in the city's harbour, to interview the Danish inventor Peter Madsen. It had been a temperate summer day - around 22 degrees Celsius. There was no symbolic portent then: nothing about the circumstances conjured the darkness that would follow.

Wall - a 30-year-old, Swedish-born journalist - had planned to interview Madsen (46) on board his 18-metre long, 40-tonne submarine before returning to shore a few hours later. But UC3 Nautilus failed to return to harbour at the agreed time and, in the early hours of August 11, her boyfriend alerted the authorities. A sea and land search operation was launched.

Shortly after 10am that same day, the submarine was sighted in Koge Bay, about 30 miles south of Copenhagen. An hour later, it started sinking and Madsen leapt into the water. He was picked up by rescuers and explained that the submarine's ballast tank had malfunctioned.

But Wall was not rescued. Madsen initially told authorities he had dropped her off after nightfall on August 10. But the next day he changed his testimony, stating that she had died in an accident on board and he had buried her at sea in Koge Bay.

The authorities determined that the submarine had taken a route around the bay and down the Oresund Strait before it sank, and a search operation was mounted to plumb the depths along that route involving divers, helicopters and ships.

Madsen was charged with negligent manslaughter, in a closed case, and pleaded not guilty.

Then, on Monday, a cyclist travelling along the water's edge south-west of the island of Amager found a dismembered, beheaded torso. On Wednesday, 13 days after Wall was last seen alive, Copenhagen police confirmed the body was hers.

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Since this discovery, the world has tried to reconcile Wall's portrait, an image of the red-headed journalist staring straight into the camera with a half-smile, with the ghoulish, harrowing vision of how she was found.

We can construct a lively picture of Wall (30), an ascendant freelance journalist based between Beijing and New York. She had planned to move in with her boyfriend in Beijing this month.

Wall studied international relations at the London School of Economics, graduating in 2011, going on to the esteemed Columbia Journalism School, completing her degree in 2013.

Like many young journalists, Wall often shared links to her articles on her Facebook page. On June 20, she shared a piece from Havana, published in Harper's Magazine. "I wrote a story about hard drivers, hackers and hustling," she said on Facebook.

In January, she wrote about Chinese feminists on the Women's March in Washington. Last year, she was awarded the Hansel Mieth Prize for Best Digital Reportage for her work on climate change and nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.

Duly, many are determined that the macabre circumstances of her death do not overshadow her life, directing people to her work, in the hope it can continue to speak for her.

She had high-profile admirers. "Man, so very sad about Kim Wall. She was a fantastic journalist," wrote Barry Jenkins, the director of the Oscar-winning Moonlight, on her Facebook wall. "Read her Cuba piece."

The writer Jill Filipovic said: "Incredibly sad to hear about Kim Wall. Love to her family, the great many people who loved her and all of us who read and admired her."

Friends and commentators are vehement that the narrative of her death not be sensationalised. And Danes are horrified. It is dominating conversation, says a Londoner who is in Copenhagen visiting family.

"It's gripping people here, as it is now internationally because it's so bizarre and people here realise how unfortunately close it is to Scandi noir."

Madsen, nicknamed 'Rocket', has a public profile and is prominent enough to have had a book written about him. Rocket Madsen: Denmark's Do-It-Yourself Astronaut was written by Thomas Djursing, an editor on a trade magazine for engineers.

One Copenhagen resident says: "Peter Madsen was apparently well known among people who are interested in submarines and/or space rockets. He had a certain following. I think he is seen in the general public as a mad inventor."

Jonas Wegner, a musician, was taken on a submarine tour by Madsen for his stag do, 10 years ago. "He was dressed up like a German submarine officer, speaking German. He was very eccentric." Wegner says he was scared and shocked to hear the news this week.

Constructing a definitive picture of Madsen's work is difficult. Certainly, he seems to have been in charge of the UC3 Nautilus, which he crowdfunded and built himself in 2008. He also has galactic ambitions: he co-founded two aerospace organisations, Rocket-Madsen Space Lab and Copenhagen Suborbitals.

Djursing's account suggests a colourful man. He says: "Peter is described by many as charismatic." In the book, Djursing writes about Madsen's relationships. "Although he is married and lives with a partner he loves, he is also sexually experimenting in fetish groups. This has been an important part of his life."

Madsen is an ascete, he adds. "He has never had much other than a bag of clothes and a shelf of books about rocket fuel, the Second World War and Apollo. He has never lived in a normal house or apartment."

The authorities will dissect these details and try to determine what happened. Others will grieve for Wall.

"We cannot see the end yet," Ingrid Wall, Kim's mother, wrote on Facebook. "During the horrendous days since Kim disappeared, we have received countless evidence of how loved and appreciated she has been, as a human and friend as well as a professional journalist.

"From all corners of the world comes evidence of Kim's ability to be a person who makes a difference."

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