Sunday, 28 February 2010

Earthquakes - stay inside or go out?

As expected, the death toll in the Chilean earthquake has risen – to at least 300, and dozens more are feared trapped in a block of flats in Concepcion. Powerful aftershocks have been felt in a number of cities, including Santiago.

Tsunami waves hit coastal towns, with Talcahuano the most seriously damaged. French Polynesia and Tahiti have also experienced big waves – though no casualties have been reported – and Japan has evacuated more than 300,000 people thought to be at risk.

90% of those killed in Chile are said to have died in their own homes, and many survivors spent last night sleeping outside. The question of where there are more dangers – in a building or in the open air – often presents those caught up in earthquakes with a terrifying dilemma.

A Chinese scholar named Qin Keda, who survived the great Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, had no doubt – stay inside. “Just crouch down,” he advised, “and wait. Even if the nest is collapsed , some eggs may still be kept intact.” It is not clear whether those who cowered indoors did any better than those who went outside, but up to 830,000 people are said to have been killed in the quake – probably the most deadly the world has ever seen. (see also my blogs of Jan 23, 2009 and Jan 22, 2010)

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Chilean earthquake

The earthquake that has struck Chile is a very powerful one, with a force of 8.8. (The Haiti quake measured 7.0) Its epicentre was 50 miles north of the city of Concepcion, population about 670,000, though buildings were damaged in the capital Santiago about 200 miles away.
At least 17 people are thought to have been killed, but as the quake struck in the early morning, and telephone and power lines are down in many areas, the death toll could be much higher, and there are fears that the quake could also generate a tsunami.
Fifty years ago Chile was hit by the strongest earthquake of modern times, registering 9.5. On May 22, 1960, the city of Valdivia, about 170 miles south of Concepcion was severely damaged.
The quake caused a tsunami that battered the Chilean coast with waves up to 80 feet high, and completely destroyed some coastal villages, while Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines were also hit. Estimates for the number of people killed range as high as 6,000.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

France and Rwanda - an apology

President Sarkozy has apologised for the behaviour of France and other countries during the Rwanda genocide of 1994. It is the first official visit to the country by a French president since the killings.

France had been heavily criticised for appearing to side with the Hutu government, who were carrying out the killings, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by the current president Paul Kagame, started to wrest control of the country from them.

In 2006, Rwanda and France broke off diplomatic relations when a French judge accused President Kagame of being involved in shooting down a plane carrying the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana – the incident that sparked off the genocide. Kagame argues that the aircraft was shot down by Hutu extremists, who had certainly been enraged at what they regarded as Habyarimana’s over-conciliatory policy to Tutsis, and extremist Hutu media had been predicting the president’s death.

The Rwandan genocide was the fastest mass murder in history, with about 800,000 people killed in just 100 days. See also my blogs of 23 Jan, 1 and 4 March, 9 April, 16 July, 23 Sept, 8 and 30 Oct, 15 Dec - all 2009.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Peruvian bus crashes - 2

At least 38 people have been killed in another serious bus crash in Peru. Two buses collided head-on on the Panamerican highway, one of Peru’s busiest roads, about 300 miles north of Lima.

Bus crashes are common in Peru. Less than a fortnight ago, 17 people died when two buses collided in Quispicanchi province in the south of the country, and in December a bus plunged down a ravine in the Andes killing 42. (see my blog of Dec 29) The country has now secured a loan of £100 million from the World Bank to improve its roads.

Internationally comparable figures on road deaths are hard to come by, but they suggest that most of the countries with the most dangerous roads are in Africa. Eritrea has an annual rate of 48.4 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, Egypt 41.6, Libya 40.5, Angola and Niger 37.7, the Gambia 36.6 and Mauritania 35.5. Afghanistan has a rate of 39, Iraq 38.1 and Iran 35.8.

In this company, Peru’s 21.5 seems fairly modest, though the UK’s rate is just 5.4, and the Netherlands 4.8. (see also my blog of Jan 5)

Sunday, 21 February 2010


Last week it was an avalanche in Pakistan, the week before another in Afghanistan (see my blog of Feb 18). Now heavy rains have brought floods and mudslides to the delightful holiday island of Madeira.

At least 40 people have been killed as tons of mud and stone were washed into the capital Funchal and other towns. The rescue effort has been hampered by the number of roads that have been blocked.

The deadliest mudslide ever was probably the one that hit Venezuela’s coastal strip in December 1999, after 36 inches of rain fell in just a few days. An estimated 30,000 people died – many of them inhabitants of the shanty towns that clung precariously to the ridges around the capital Caracas. (see also my blog of Oct 10, 2009).

Belated thanks to the Bernstein Crisis Management Blog for its welcome to my (then) new blog almost one year ago!

Thanks also to the Jersey Journal for its article on Disaster! – my new US book:-

Thursday, 18 February 2010


At least 38 people have been killed by an avalanche that buried a village in the remote Kohistan district in north-west Pakistan. Avalanches are common in the area, and heavy snow over the last fortnight has increased the danger.

Earlier this month, a series of avalanches struck the approach to the Salang tunnel in Afghanistan, burying more than two miles of road and killing at least 172 people. The Salang tunnel was the scene of a disastrous road crash in 1982 which cost the lives of up to 2,000 people. For more details, see A Disastrous History of the World.

The deadliest natural avalanche ever was probably the one that buried the town of Plurs in Switzerland in 1618, killing more than 2,400, but during World War One in the Tyrol, the Italian and Austrian armies each deliberately set off avalanches with explosives, and during one period of 48 hours, 10,000 soldiers were killed.

I mentioned in my blog of Feb 6 that my world disasters book has now been published in the United States as Disaster! My thanks to The Southern in Illinois which has written articles on the book:-

Monday, 15 February 2010

Theatre fires

On this day…..101 years ago, up to 300 people perished in a fire at the Flores Theatre in Acapulco, Mexico. More than 1,000 people had packed the wooden building for a special show in honour of the state governor.

The fire began while they were watching a film, and it quickly spread to bunting until the whole building was alight. In the panic to escape, many people were crushed to death in addition to those who perished from fire or smoke.

According to a contemporary report, many of those killed were “from the first families of the state, the affair being a social event of considerable importance.”

The world’s deadliest theatre fire happened at Canton in China on March 5, 1845. More than 1,650 people were killed, as the theatre was completely destroyed, and the flames are said to have destroyed another 30 buildings nearby.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Fires in orphanages

Up to 15 people, including a dozen children, have been killed in a fire at an orphanage in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. The director of the Hope in Christ Home was said to have been suffocated by smoke, along with her four children, eight orphans and two other adults. The cause is being investigated.

One of the worst ever orphanage fires happened at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Cavan in the Irish Republic on February 23, 1943. The establishment was run by nuns from the Poor Clares.

The fire seems to have been caused by an electrical fault in the laundry, and the alarm was raised in the early hours of the morning by one of the girls. Local people saw smoke coming out of the building and tried to put out the flames, but without success, and when the fire brigade arrived, they too were defeated by the blaze.

One local man managed to get a ladder up to a dormitory window, and bring down five girls, while some others jumped from the windows and survived. Altogether, though, 35 children and one adult lost their lives.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

China - secret disasters

In China an activist who has been investigating the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 has been jailed for five years for inciting subversion. Although the charges against Tan Zuoren did not formally relate to his investigation, human rights groups claim they were the real reason for the prosecution.

He was arrested while preparing a report into the collapse of school buildings during the quake. In many areas, schools seemed to have fared worse than neighbouring buildings, and parents alleged that corruption had led to poor building standards. Altogether 80,000 people died.

A Hong Kong television crew was prevented from attending Tan Zuoren’s trial, and had their hotel room searched for alleged possession of drugs.

China has a record of secrecy in the aftermath of disasters. After the great Tangshan quake of 1976 it took two years for the authorities to announce that 242,000 had been killed, and many still believe the true number was much higher, while details of the Henan floods of 1975 – caused by shoddily built dams – were suppressed for nearly 30 years. Human rights groups believe that more than 200,000 people died.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Bombing for God + paying for ignorance

The murderous Islamic religious struggle between Shias and Sunnis goes on. In Pakistan, 25 people – mainly Shia pilgrims – were killed by two bombs in Karachi, the second of which went off at a hospital where victims of the first blast were being treated.

Meanwhile in Iraq, two suicide bombers have killed at least 40 Shias on the outskirts of Karbala, where they were visiting one of their holiest shrines. The bombs went off at either end of a bridge that the pilgrims were crossing. On Monday, more than 40 pilgrims were killed on the outskirts of Baghdad as they began their journey to Karbala. Yesterday was the last day of a period of mourning that Shias observe for the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.

According to a former American ambassador, shortly before he ordered the attack on Iraq, President Bush was unaware that there were Sunni and Shia Muslims. Did Tony Blair know? (See also my blog of June 22)

* An updated version of my Disastrous History of the World has just been published by Skyhorse in the United States as Disaster! A History of Earthquakes, Floods, Plagues and Other Catastrophes.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Concorde crash trial + Haiti update

In France, Continental Airlines and five individuals have gone on trial over the Concorde crash at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on July 25, 2000. The aircraft came down on the nearby town of Gonesse, killing four people on the ground and all 109 passengers and crew on board. It was the only fatal accident the supersonic airliner was ever involved in, but it never recovered, and was retired from service in 2003.

An investigation concluded that one of Concorde’s tyres had burst after it hit a piece of metal left on the runway by a Continental DC-10. Debris from the tyre then ruptured a fuel tank, which made the airliner burst into flames. Continental denies this, and claims that Concorde had caught fire before it hit the metal.

Among the individuals facing manslaughter charges alongside Continental are one of its mechanics and a maintenance official, as well as Concorde’s former chief engineer, a former head of the Concorde division at Aerospatiale and a former member of France’s civil aviation watchdog.

** I’ve been quoted by Newsweek in an article on the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath. The link is

Monday, 1 February 2010

Terrorism v road accidents

So as I exclusively predicted – well not exactly exclusively – the suspected war criminal Tony Blair ran rings around the Labour stooges whose unhappy task it is to exonerate him and all others responsible for the Iraq disaster. (See my blog of Jan 28)

Now here’s a real exclusive, though. You remember that Labour raised the terror alert for the UK a few days ago to “severe”. Well I can reveal they are now going to raise the ROADS ALERT to “very, very tremendously severe - in fact, totally scary”.

The reason is that government statisticians have discovered that while 56 civilians have died in terrorist attacks in the UK over the last four years, the number killed in road accidents is just short of 12,000! That means you are about 215 times more likely to be killed travelling on or crossing the roads than in a terrorist attack. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Btw – what is the terrorist alert level in “liberated” Iraq? Today, another 40 people were murdered – Shia pilgrims blown to bits by a woman who had hidden her suicide bomb under her long black gown.