Thursday 28 January 2010

Iraq - dependent inquiry

Tomorrow Tony Blair will face the UK’s Iraq inquiry. He should not have much to fear from an inquiry into Labour’s conduct whose members and terms of reference were decided by Labour, who also decided which documents would be kept secret.

An independent inqury by the Dutch government has already declared the war illegal. This week two senior UK Foreign Office lawyers made clear to the UK inquiry that they had told the Labour government the same thing before the bombing and invasion. One of them, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, joins Robin Cook on the very short list of people to come out of this episode with any credit. She resigned when Labour attacked Iraq.

The then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, admitted that in January 2003, he too had said the war would be illegal. Then, for reasons he never explained, he completely changed his mind, so that by March, just in time for the attack, he decided it was legal!

He also confirmed that the 20-odd Labour ministers sitting around the Cabinet table did not think the legality of the war was a matter they needed to discuss. So all bear their share of guilt for one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in British history.

On Monday, 36 people died after a triple car bombing in Baghdad and on Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed another 18 in the city.

Monday 25 January 2010

Lebanon air crash - aircraft and bad weather

In the first major air crash of 2010, an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 has gone into the sea soon after taking off from Beirut airport bound for Addis Ababa. There were 82 passengers on board and 8 crew. No survivors have so far been found.

The weather had been stormy, and eye witnesses spoke of seeing a ball of fire in the sky before the aircraft crashed. The Lebanese President has said it is unlikely that foul play was involved. Ethiopian Airlines is considered to have a good safety record, but a similar 737 from Kenya Airways crashed in Cameroon at the cost of 114 lives after also taking off in heavy rain and thunderstorms in 2007.

Last year’s worst air accident, the loss of an Air France Airbus A330 over the Atlantic en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, also happened in poor weather. (See my blog of June 20, 2009). It was the deadliest air crash in eight years, as all 228 people on board were killed.

The cause of the accident remains a mystery, not helped by the fact that it has proved impossible so far to find the aircraft’s flight recorders. The search will resume next month.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Survivors and great escapes - 2

Eleven days after the Haiti earthquake, a 24 year old man in remarkably good shape has been pulled from the rubble of a hotel. Wismond Exantus, who worked in its grocery store, said he survived on soft drinks and little bits of food. On Friday, an 84 year old woman and a 21 year old man were rescued. Emmannuel Buso had had nothing to eat or drink.

Mr Exantus’s rescue came shortly after the Haitian government had officially called off the search for survivors. On January 16, I blogged about some other remarkable escapes after disasters.

It was long after the search for survivors of the Courrieres coal mine explosion of 1906 in northern France had been abandoned that 13 miners emerged. They had lived for 20 days on food taken down by miners to eat in their lunch breaks and by slaughtering a horse. They had lost all sense of time, and believed they had been trapped for only four or five days.

In China’s Tangshan earthquake of 1976, miners working underground had a much better chance of survival than people on the surface. Only 13 out of 15,000 perished, but some were trapped for 15 days without food or clean water. They too thought they had been entombed for only a few days, but their emaciated bodies told the real story. For more on both disasters, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Quakes in capital cities

The Haiti earthquake may be the deadliest ever to hit a capital city if the estimate of up to 200,000 killed is accurate. The Tokyo quake of 1923 killed about 150,000 in the Japanese capital and its port Yokohama, and about 1.9 million were made homeless, as up to 360,000 buildings were destroyed.

Within days, though, businesses and shops left standing had begun trading again, and seven years later, it was said that Tokyo had been restored with scarcely a single visible scar from the disaster. A plan to rebuild the capital at a new site, less vulnerable to earthquakes, was rejected.

The Lisbon earthquake of All Saints' Day 1755 struck a city that was then not just the capital of Portugal, but the hub of a great empire. As many as 90,000 people were killed, while thousands of buildings were flattened - much of the damage being done by the fires that broke out after the quake. The king put his prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal, in charge of reconstruction, and Pombal turned his coach into an improvised office among the ruins, living on soup brought in by his wife as he got to grips with the crisis.

He posted guards at exits from the city to stop any able-bodied men from leaving, then pressed them into work on the clean-up, while he sent ships to all corners of the empire with the message that the capital was still open for business. Some, like the Jesuits, argued that the city should not be rebuilt as the quake was a punishment from God, but within a year the Marquis was constructing a new Lisbon with the big squares and long avenues that form the elegant heart of the city we see today, and which his statue surveys from the top of a tall column.

Friday 22 January 2010

Haiti in historical perspective

If the estimates we are now hearing of 200,000 people killed in the Haiti earthquake are accurate, that would make it probably the eighth deadliest in history. The worst may have been one that hit the eastern Mediterranean region in 1201 or 1202, devastating countries like Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Some say this disaster claimed more than a million lives, though many of these may actually have perished in the famine that was raging through Egypt about the same time.

Better documented is the quake that devastated Shaanxi province in China in 1556, killing up to 830,000 people, many of whom had been living in man-made caves they had dug into the soft soil. Perhaps third worst was the quake of 526 that destroyed Antioch in modern-day Turkey. Known as "the Fair Crown of the Orient", it had been the third biggest city in the Roman Empire, and was the place where the word "Christian" was first used to describe the followers of Jesus. The death toll was said to be 300,000.

In more modern times, the Chinese earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 was officially said to have killed 242,000, though the Chinese government did not admit to this figure until three years afterwards. Unofficial estimates put the death toll as high as 655,000. More recently, the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 claimed 230,000 victims.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Disasters and disorder

Haiti could be a pretty lawless place at the best of times. The aftermath of the earthquake is not the best of times. At first it seemed survivors were helping themselves to food and water wherever they could find them, and you couldn’t blame them.

Now, though, looting has become much more widespread with organised criminal gangs beginning to take charge. Following the quake, an estimated 4,500 prisoners escaped from the country’s main gaol – among them drug barons and gang bosses.

Disorder, of course, is not unusual after a major disaster. During the Sicily earthquake of 1908 (see my blog of January 16), the walls of Messina prison collapsed and those inmates who were not killed or injured just walked out. Normally law-abiding folk grabbed what they needed to survive wherever they could, but others pillaged shops and warehouses or rifled corpses, while two men were shot dead trying to rob a bank.

After the Lisbon quake of 1755, the authorities hanged thirty looters in prominent places around the city. And following America’s Johnstown flood of 1885, a number of “marauders” were summarily executed, because “the people in the solemn earnestness of their work of succour and rescue [had] not the patience to wait the tedious process of law.”

Saturday 16 January 2010

Survivors and great escapes

There has not been much good news from Haiti, but yesterday we got a small ration. Fifty hours after the earthquake struck, a two year old boy was found alive by a Spanish rescue team in the ruins of his home in Port-au-Prince. Redjeson Hausteen Claude’s face broke into a smile when he was handed to his weeping mother.

On July 4 last year, I wrote in this blog about what appeared to be the unusual ability of children to survive air crashes. And after the great Sicily earthquake of 1908, which killed perhaps 150,000 people, a group of Russian sailors, who played a much-admired role in the rescue effort, found two babies safe and well under a heap of rubble. They were said to have been laughing and playing with the buttons on their clothes.

There have also been astonishing escapes involving adults, of course. Twenty days after the Courrieres mining disaster in France in 1906, 13 survivors emerged from the pit, long after the rescue effort had been abandoned, and following the Chinese Tangshan earthquake of 1976, there were miners who kept going for 15 days underground without food or clean water.

Friday 15 January 2010

Haiti relief effort

The United Nations says that member states have pledged £165 million for the relief effort in Haiti. Correspondents in the country, though, report that there’s little sign of help reaching the stricken areas. In one place, survivors seem to have built a pile of dead bodies as a protest.

The UN’s World Food Programme says two million people need feeding, but so far it has managed to reach just 4,000. Because of fuel shortages, Port-au-Prince’s small airport is clogged with stranded aircraft, the port is too badly damaged to use, and roads are blocked by debris.

If the estimate of around 50,000 dead is correct, this would make it the deadliest earthquake since May 2008, when up to 87,000 perished in Sichuan in south-west China. That one measured 7.8 compared with the 7 recorded in Haiti.

The other most devastating quake of the century so far was the 7.6 disaster that hit northern Pakistan in 2005, causing 73,000 deaths, while of course, it was a massive 9.2 undersea earthquake that caused the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which accounted for around 230,000 people.

* Estonian readers of this blog may wish to know that my book A Disastrous History of the World is now available in their language as Maailma Katastroofide Ajalugu, published by Sinisukk.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Haiti earthquake

The Red Cross estimates that up to 50,000 people have been killed by the earthquake in Haiti, and some say the total could be as high as 100,000. The United States is sending 5,500 service personnel to help the rescue effort in one of the poorest, most chaotic countries on earth.

The UN had been playing a major role in keeping a semblance of normal life going , and now 150 of its staff are missing after its headquarters in Port-au-Prince collapsed. At the moment, the search for survivors in the city is mainly being carried out by the bare hands of rescuers.

It is 240 years since an earthquake approaching this magnitude hit Haiti. In June 1770, Port-au-Prince was razed to the ground as were a number of villages. At least 200 people died in the quake itself, and up to 30,000 in the chaos that followed.

In 2004, the country was hit by Hurricane Jeanne, which killed 3,000 and caused widespread disruption. Then in 2008, the town of Gonaives was hit by four hurricanes in a month, causing 1,000 deaths, and making a million people homeless.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Israel: "we're a bit sorry"

A year after its merciless assault on Gaza that killed 1,400 people, Israel has agreed to pay $10 million compensation to the United Nations for destroying or damaging stores, schools, offices and vehicles funded by the organisation in the desperately impoverished besieged enclave.

Israel claimed that Hamas fighters were operating near or in UN buildings, but a UN inquiry rejected its arguments, and accused the Israeli military of “negligence or recklessness”, saying that the deaths of civilians should be investigated under international law. In one of the worst incidents, Israel fired mortars in the "immediate vicinity" of a school being used to shelter Palestinians who had fled from their homes, killing up to 40 people.

Meanwhile, life for the Palestinians goes on much as usual. On Friday, three people, including a 14 year old boy, were killed by Israeli air strikes, the Egyptians have been preventing an aid convoy carrying much-needed clothing and medical equipment from crossing into the territory, and President Obama’s half-hearted attempts to establish a Palestinian state have got precisely nowhere.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Another great survivor

The story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivor Tsutomu Yamaguchi in yesterday’s blog reminded me of another astonishing escape during the Great Storm of November 27, 1703 – probably the worst in recorded history to hit the United Kingdom.

Up to 8,000 people, many of them sailors in the Royal Navy, are thought to have drowned around Britain’s coasts. One naval ship destroyed was the Mary. The only member of its crew of 273 to survive was Thomas Atikins, who managed to cling to a floating piece of wreckage until a huge wave picked him up and flung him onto the deck of another man o’ war, the Stirling Castle.

As she was grounded, he was flung overboard, but fell into the only boat that managed to float free from the ship, and reached the shore unconscious and suffering from exposure, but alive. Of the Stirling Castle's crew of 349, just 70 survived.

For the full story of the Great Storm, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Friday 8 January 2010

One of the great survivors

The only person officially recognised to have survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb explosions has died in Japan aged 93. Tsutomu Yamaguchi was from Nagasaki, and worked as a draughtsman, designing oil tankers for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

In the summer of 1945, he was seconded to a shipyard in Hiroshima – an arrangement that was due to end on August 6. That very morning, Enola Gay dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Mr Yamaguchi suffered severe burns to the upper half of his body, but managed to return to his hometown.

He was there three days later when the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In later years, he became a determined campaigner for nuclear disarmament and addressed the United Nations.

A uranium atomic bomb was used against Hiroshima, and it exploded nearly 1,900 feet above the city. In the immediate aftermath, about 90,000 people died, while in the years that followed, the effects of burns, injuries and radiation carried off perhaps another 50,000. Against Nagasaki, a more powerful plutonium bomb was used, but the city had better air raid precautions, and the total death toll was around 75,000.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Road accidents - Bangladesh

Another country with dangerous roads is Bangladesh. On New Year’s Day, at least 18 people were killed when a bus skidded off the road and plunged into a ditch in dense fog at Kanaipur in the south-west of the country.

Early last month, near the same town, at least 20 people died when two buses collided head-on, and in December 2008, 24 perished when the lorry in which they were travelling veered off the road, again in thick fog. The accident happened at Tangail, about 40 miles north of the capital Dhaka.

Altogether, up to 5,000 people are killed every year in road accidents in Bangladesh. Poor roads and old, badly maintained vehicles are blamed for most crashes.

The Inter-American Development Bank once named the North Yungas Road, a 40 mile highway in Bolivia that leads from La Paz to Coroico, “the world’s most dangerous”. Also known as the “Road of Death”, it is said to see up to 300 travellers killed every year. (See also my blogs of Dec 20 and 29)

Monday 4 January 2010

India's big freeze + Whitehall Palace

Every year in India, hundreds of people die in the summer from extreme heat, but in the winter the cold is a serious hazard, especially for the poor. This winter, up to 100 people have perished, mainly in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh – most of them homeless or old people.

Six years ago, the death toll reached an estimated 150 – with half of the victims in Uttar Pradesh, and the others in Rajasthan and Bihar. In Bihar, the authorities ordered bonfires to be lit to help keep the homeless warm.

On this day….312 years ago, what was once the greatest palace in Europe was burned down. London’s Whitehall Palace covered 23 acres, but it came to grief because a servant left some linen drying by a fire.

The flames got out of control and destroyed almost the whole of the complex apart from the magnificent Banqueting House, outside which Charles I was executed, which can be visited to this day. For the story, see The Disastrous History of London.

Sunday 3 January 2010

"War on terrror" + Kent a millennium ago

According to the independent Iraq Body Count group, 4,497 civilians met violent deaths in the country last year. That’s not quite as bad as the figure of 9,226 for 2008, but horrifying enough when you think how profoundly we in Britain were shocked by the loss of 56 people in the bus and train bombings of 2005.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the death toll from the suicide bomb at a volleyball match in the north-west of the country has risen to 93. Altogether, more than 600 people have died in militant attacks since the army launched an offensive against Taliban strongholds in October.

A millennium ago this winter, Kent was suffering a reign of terror of its own after an “immense” Viking army arrived to plunder and extort protection money. Canterbury paid out a huge sum to get them to go away, which they did for a while – sacking towns like Oxford, Cambridge and Northampton instead.

In 1011, they returned, and burned Canterbury to the ground, killing, it is said, nine tenths of the inhabitants. They carried off Archbishop Alphege, but he bravely insisted that no ransom should be paid for him, so the Vikings murdered him, making him the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be martyred. I have just written the story for Kent on Sunday, and it can be accessed here on page 17:

Saturday 2 January 2010

Ibrox 1971

On this day….39 years ago, two goals in the last couple of minutes of the traditional New Year Glasgow football derby between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox Park precipitated a disaster. Crowds drifting away early suddenly turned and tried to go back into the ground.

The result was a terrible crush on Staircase 13 in the north-east corner of the stadium. As fans began falling, one eyewitness said it was as though people were “disappearing down a big hole.” People in the crush talked about being literally swept off their feet and carried along until there was a big bang and one of the banisters gave way.

Soon the steps were covered with the bodies of the dead and injured and with shoes and items of clothing torn off in the melee. Altogether 66 people were killed in what was then the worst disaster at a British football ground. Today there is a memorial at the ground and you can read the full story of the disaster in A Disastrous History of Britain.

Probably the worst football disaster of all time came at the Olympic qualifying tie of May 24, 1964 between Peru and Argentina in Lima. More than 300 people were killed when a riot broke out after Peru had a “goal” disallowed. See also my 2009 blogs of January 13 and March 30.