Saturday, 4 July 2015

Indonesian air crash - lightning strikes twice

Students of lightning will tell you that far from it never striking the same place twice, it has favourite places it is always hitting. A structure such as New York’s Empire State Building, for example, might be struck 40 times in a single day.

Even so, the citizens of Medan on the Indonesian island of Sumatra must have felt themselves particularly unfortunate when a 51 year old Hercules military aircraft crashed this week, killing 9 people on the ground, as well as the 12 crew members and perhaps 109 passengers on board. There still seems to be confusion about the exact number of passengers.

It came down just two kilometres from where a Mandala Airlines Boeing 737 crashed shortly after take off in 2005, killing 100 people in the aircraft and 49 on the ground. An official investigation concluded the airliner had taken off with its flaps and slats retracted, meaning it failed to lift off properly.

The first indications from the Hercules crash are that one of its four engines failed shortly after take off. It is the latest in a series of accidents involving Indonesian military aircraft. Relatives of some of the passengers told reporters the victims had paid to be carried on the aircraft, which would be an illicit use of a military craft.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Of disasters, gods and spirits

The court case against four Western tourists who stripped off at the top of a Malaysian sacred mountain has been given added spice by claims from a local politician that their action caused an earthquake that killed 18 people. His rationale was that they had angered the spirits of Mount Kinabalu.

It is easy to mock, and other Malaysian politicians have distanced themselves from linking the natural disaster to the tourists’ behaviour, but we should remember that the need to find some divine retribution behind the suffering inflicted by disasters is deep-seated, and was common in Britain until relatively recently.

After we were struck by the worst storm in our history in 1703, Queen Anne declared it was because God felt a ‘heavy displeasure’ at our wickedness. Even though thousands were killed, especially around our coasts, it was no good feeling sorry for ourselves, she said. We had behaved so badly, we were lucky the storm was not even worse.

When cholera struck in 1832, the British government announced a series of days of fasting and humiliation during which the nation would confess its sins and beg for God’s forgiveness. It did not halt the disease, which raged for another year and killed about 60,000 people.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

David Cameron and Europe - at last the truth

Like me you probably thought you were seeing things a couple of days ago when David Cameron suddenly seemed to develop a backbone as he declared that anti-European ministers would have to, er . . . follow government policy or resign. Indeed we were seeing things, and normal service was resumed within a couple of hours as Dave caved in to the anti-European fanatics.

I did warn that if the Tories won the General Election in 2015, Britain would leave Europe. It is not what Cameron wants. He and George Osborne understand it would be a disaster, even if the rest of their party do not, but having the courage to say so is, of course, quite another matter.

It’s clear that Cameron’s plan is to follow Harold Wilson’s recipe from 1975. Lace your speeches with plenty of anti-European rhetoric and agree to a referendum to placate the extremists in your party. Carry on a ‘renegotiation’ with your European partners. Gain a couple of cosmetic changes that you sell as major concessions. Win the referendum to stay in Europe by a comfortable majority.

I covered the 1975 referendum, and here is why Cameron will fail:-

1. Harold Wilson was one of the sharpest political operators Britain has ever seen. Cameron is simply not in his class.

2. The newspapers in Wilson’s time covered Europe reasonably fairly. Now the papers with the biggest circulations spew out an unremitting stream of anti-European bile.

Brexit looms. Will the last businessman to leave the country please turn out the lights.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

What sank the Yangtze cruise ship?

What caused the Eastern Star cruise ship to capsize in the Yangtze River with the loss of more than 440 lives? Meteorologists confirmed that a ‘sudden, strong and violent’ storm hit the area, and the transport ministry said the Eastern Star was a ‘grade B vessel’ that might be vulnerable to it.

But others are asking how it could be overturned in seconds, without being able to send out a distress signal, when no other vessels in the area seem to have been affected. It is known that the ship was investigated for safety defects in 2013.

Of the 456 people aboard, only 14 have so far been rescued, including one man who spent ten hours in the water, but hopes are fading that any more survivors will be found. The captain and the chief engineer are in police custody.

China’s worst peacetime shipwreck of the twentieth century came in 1948, when the passenger steam ship Kiangya (pictured) sank in the mouth of the Huangpu River 50 miles south of Shanghai with the loss of up to 3,900 lives. It is believed it struck a mine left behind by the Japanese after World War Two.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Rana Plaza collapse - murder charges

The owner of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh which collapsed in April 2013 with the loss of more than 1,100 lives has been charged with murder. It was the deadliest event of its kind in modern times.

Sohel Rana and 41 others, including government officials, are accused of ignoring warnings that the buildings, about 20 miles from the capital, Dhaka, were not safe. Any convicted of murder could face the death penalty.

There has been criticism of the length of time it has taken to bring charges, but investigators say they have had to take statements from more than 1,200 people. It is said this is the first time anyone has faced criminal charges over an accident in the country’s clothing industry, which is one of the biggest in the world, and provides cheap items for some well-known Western retailers.

It is alleged that three extra storeys had been illegally added to the building. After the disaster, Mr Rana tried to flee to India. (For more details, see my blog of 3 May 2013.)

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Lancastria - a forgotten disaster

On May 19, I blogged about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff during World War Two, which resulted in the deaths of around 9,000 German civilians, soldiers and sailors. Now a campaign has been launched in the UK to properly commemorate the sinking of the British liner, Lancastria (pictured) off the French port of St Nazaire in June 1940.

The ship was carrying up to 9,000 British soldiers and French and Belgian refugees when it was attacked by German bombers the day before France surrendered to the Nazis. It is thought that about 4,000 drowned.

Today people such as General Lord Dannatt, former head of the British army, the actress Joanna Lumley and the author Louis de Bernieres say the British government should do more to preserve their memory, describing the loss of the Lancastria as a ‘forgotten disaster’.

They want the government to designate the wreck an official war grave, and they refer to reports that some documents relating to the disaster are still being kept secret. The government says the wreck is already protected under French law, and that all ‘contemporary’ documents have been released. 

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Quintinshill - Britain's worst train crash

Tonight at 2100 the BBC4 tv channel will tell the story of Britain’s worst ever rail disaster, which happened 100 years ago tomorrow. It was a three train pile-up during the First World War at Quintinshill near Gretna on the West Coast main line early on the morning of 22 May 2015, in which about 226 people died, most of them soldiers on a troop train.

The troop train was carrying about 500 men south on the first leg of their journey to Gallipoli. It was made up of gas-lit wooden coaches. Congestion in the area that morning meant that a local train was being held stationary on the main line.

The troop train ploughed into it, and then shortly after, a sleeper coming up from the south ran into the wreckage. The carriages of the troop train were soon alight, the blaze spreading with nightmare speed.

Two signalmen were blamed for the crash. One was sentenced to three years’ hard labour, and the other to 18 months in gaol, but pre-publicity for tonight’s programme suggests it may have new information on the causes.

For more on Quintinshill, see A Disastrous History of Britain.