Thursday 31 December 2009

Great Tokyo earthquakes

Today is traditionally a day for looking back, so that’s what I’m going to do – 306 years in fact, to December 31, 1703. On that day, Tokyo, then known as Edo, was hit by an earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people.

Worse, though, was the tsunami that followed it. This hit the Boso Pensinsula and Sagami Bay, and some put the total death toll as high as 150,000. If this is accurate, it would make it the most deadly tsunami in history after the Boxing Day disaster of 2004.

220 years later, Tokyo would be hit by another fearsome earthquake on September 1, 1923. As devastating as the quake itself were the fires that swept through the city’s packed wooden houses as kitchen cooking braziers were knocked over.

The fires raged for days, and Tokyo lost more than 300,000 buildings. Its port Yokohama, 18 miles away, also suffered dreadfully, with the loss of 60,000 buildings. Altogether, 150,000 people were killed and nearly 2 million made homeless.

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Two more Philippine shipwrecks

The year has ended with another ferry being shipwrecked in the Philippines. At least 25 people are believed to have drowned when the MV Baleno-9 drive-on vessel went down in rough seas near Batangas city off the south coast of the country's main island of Luzon.

It was listed as having 88 people on board, of whom 72 have been rescued , but it is common practice in the islands not to record the names of all passengers in the ship’s manifest. The shipwreck came just three days after another ferry, the Catalyn B sank following a collision with a fishing boat. At least 27 are believed to have perished.

The Philippines was the scene of the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster when the ferry Dona Paz went down after colliding with a tanker just before Christmas 1987 (see my blog of Aug 7).

In June 2008, the Princess of the Stars sank on its way from Manila to Cebu City when it encountered heavy seas off Sibuyan island. Once again there was uncertainty about the number of people aboard, but the death toll is put at up to 800. (See also my blogs of Sept 6 and 26)

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Bus crashes

A bus carrying farmers and traders home for Christmas has plunged 250 feet into a ravine in the Peruvian Andes, killing at least 42 people. They were travelling between Arequipa, Peru's elegant second largest city, and the town of Santo Tomas.

The accident happened in an area that was so remote that the nearest village did not have a doctor. A local schoolteacher said the road was potholed and in poor condition, but investigators will also be looking at whether a mechanical fault or recent rains might be a factor.

Back in 1995, 110 people are said to have been killed when a tanker carrying liquid benzene collided with a bus on the outskirts of Sriperumbudur in India’s Tamil Nadu state. If this figure is correct, this would probably be the worst bus crash in history.

Better documented is the accident in 2003 in which a coach drove into a reservoir near the town of Bethlehem in South Africa, killing 80. This too happened in a remote area, and it seems that the driver lost his way in the dark and found himself driving along a jetty towards the water. By the time he realised his mistake he was going too fast to stop.

Monday 28 December 2009

Indian bridge collapses

Up to 49 building workers are feared dead after the collapse of a section of a new 100 yard bridge across the Chambai River in Rajasthan, northern India. Some of the victims were flung into the river and others buried under rubble.

The bridge was a joint enterprise between an Indian and a South Korean company. Police have arrested two project managers, and have filed charges against another dozen company officials.

India has suffered a number of bridge collapses in recent years. One of the deadliest happened near the town of Veligonda in Andhra Pradesh in October 2005, when a flash flood swept away a small bridge, and an express train was derailed killing at least 114.

In December 2006, a dozen railway passengers were killed when a bridge collapsed onto a train passing beneath at Bhagalpur in Bihar, while nine months later, in September 2007, up to 30 people died when a flyover being built in Hyderabad gave way.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Guinea - "crimes against humanity"

Following the shooting of more than 150 protestors in September, Guinea’s military leader, Capt Moussa Dadis Camara, should be charged with crimes against humanity, according to a leaked United Nations report.

Critics of the military junta had gathered at a sports stadium in the country’s capital, Conarky, to demonstrate their opposition after reports that Capt Camara was planning to stand for president. Troops opened fire on them in what human rights groups claim was a premeditated massacre.

The UN’s investigators say soldiers also raped or sexually abused more than 100 girls and women, and that hundreds of other people were tortured or ill-treated. Capt Camara had claimed the atrocities were committed by unruly elements in the army.

Three weeks ago, he was shot in the head by one of his aides, then flown to Morocco for treatment. He has not returned, fuelling suspicion that he may have been seriously injured, though Guinea’s ambassador in Morocco claimed today that he plans to come back “as quickly as possible.”

Tuesday 22 December 2009


More than 80 people have died in Europe because of the snowstorms of the last few days. More than 40 – mainly homeless – have frozen to death in Poland, and 27 in the Ukraine.

A restaurant owner in Krakow provided free hot meals for homeless people in the town’s beautiful main square as temperatures dropped to -20 in some places. Across the Atlantic at least five people have died as Washington’s Reagan National Airport was buried under a record 16 inches (40cm) of snow.

Two of America’s worst ever blizzards struck in 1888. In January, more than 230 people perished across the Great Plains (see my blog of Jan 12). Two months later, New York City was hit in the middle of what had been its mildest winter for 17 years.

What became known as the “Great White Hurricane” paralysed the east coast of the United States from Chesapeake Bay to Maine. Up to 60 inches (150 cm) of snow fell in some places, and winds of 50 mph (80 kph) created drifts up to 50 feet (125 cm) deep. An estimated 400 people died, including 100 in New York City. For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Another Nigerian road disaster

Nigeria has further underpinned its unenviable reputation for having some of the most dangerous roads in the world. (See also my blogs of Feb 1, Oct 12 and Nov 5.) Up to 100 people were killed when a runaway lorry ploughed into a crowded market in Kogi state.

Police say the driver appeared to lose control and the vehicle hurtled down a hill smashing cars before it crashed into the market. According to government officials, the lorry’s brakes failed. The state governor has declared three days of mourning.

Defective brakes were also a factor in what was probably Nigeria (and one of the world)’s worst road accidents when a tanker ploughed into stationary vehicles on a motorway in November 2000, killing up to 200.

Last week, 23 people were burned to death when a bus collided with a lorry in Oyo state.

Friday 18 December 2009

The Bologna station bomb

Just back from the lovely ancient Italian city of Bologna. In the Piazza Maggiore, there’s a simple but moving monument to the 85 people killed in a neo-Fascist terrorist bombing at the railway station on Saturday, August 2, 1980.

It was a hot morning, and the air-conditioned waiting room was packed when an unattended suitcase exploded at 1025. The blast destroyed most of the station’s main building and severely damaged a train at the platform by the waiting room. So many people were injured that a large number had to be taken to hospital in buses and taxis.

In 1988, four neo-fascists were gaoled for life for their part in the bombing, though two were later freed on appeal. A third person was gaoled for 30 years in 2004, but he continues to maintain his innocence.

The attack came on the same day that a Bologna court sent 8 men for trial following a neo-fascist terrorist bomb on the Rome-Brenner express in 1974 that killed 12 people.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Rwanda genocide - a journalist gaoled

A Rwandan journalist has been gaoled for life for encouraging Hutus to slaughter Tutsis during the 1994 genocide in the country which saw 800,000 people massacred in just 100 days.

Valerie Bemeriki was a leading broadcaster on Radio Mille Collines which played a key role in inciting and orchestrating the slaughter. Two senior executives from the station had already been imprisoned.

Ms Bemeriki is alleged to have urged Hutu extremists not to shoot “these cockroaches” but instead hack them to pieces with a machete. And it is said that some victims actually had to pay their murderers to kill them by the bullet.

Meanwhile Rwanda has accused other African states of harbouring genocide suspects. It claims “hundreds” are sheltering in Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. See also my blogs of March 1, 4, April 9, July 16, Sept 23, Oct 8, 30.

Monday 14 December 2009

Blair official: "I lied over Iraq"

Of course, Mr Blair is not going to come out and say “OK, l lied so I could bomb, invade and occupy Iraq, killing tens of thousands of innocent people who never did us any harm.” He’s a lawyer, for Heaven’s sake, but he has admitted as much in the unlikely environment of an interview with Fern Britton.

He told her that he didn’t care whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or not. Even if he hadn’t, “I would still have thought it right to remove him.” It would simply have meant that other pretexts would have needed to be found: “I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments.”

So when Mr Blair told the House of Commons in February 2003 that if Saddam was prepared to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction, he would not attack his country, he was lying. I’m old enough to remember a time when a minister who lied to the House of Commons about a love affair had to resign – at once, no arguments.

In many ways, the most interesting thing about the whole Iraq fiasco is not Mr Blair – who has plainly never been burdened by any sliver of respect for the truth – but the Labour party. They have managed to persuade themselves that it’s no problem if you tell a pack of lies so you can have a war. Until they unpersuade themselves, there will be no escape from the political wilderness.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Swine flu - a cause for cautious optimism?

In the UK, the swine flu pandemic is turning out to be less threatening than had originally been feared. Last week, there were 11,000 new cases – a reduction of half on the previous week. Back in July, there were predictions that we might be seeing 100,000 new cases every day.

There have been 283 deaths – just one for every four thousand people who catch the illness. The chief medical officer warned against complacency, though, and history would suggest rightly. The great flu pandemic of 1918 first appeared as a relatively mild illness, but then returned as the devastating killer of perhaps 70 million people.

Across the world, more than 7,800 people are known to have died of H1N1 after the figure leapt by 1,000 in a week. Most of the deaths have been in the American continents – more than 5,300.

Mutated strains have killed people in Norway and France, and these have been seen in four other countries, but overall most victims still suffer fairly mild symptoms. (See also my blogs of 30 April, 13 May, 6, 11 July, 24 Oct)