Thursday 29 April 2010

Cameroon air crash verdict + Spanish edition articles

The official investigation into the Kenya Airways 737 crash in Cameroon in 2007 (see my blog of January 25) has blamed pilot error. The report says the Boeing took off during a storm without clearance from air traffic control in Douala.

The aircraft crashed upside down into a swamp just 90 seconds after take-off, and all 114 people on board died. As it climbed through the darkness and heavy cloud, the pilot became disorientated and the aircraft started to roll to the right.

His 23 year old first officer, whose inexperience was also identified as a possible cause, at first told the captain to turn right, before correcting himself and shouting “left, left, left.” The report also said that the crew failed to carry out any proper instrument check.

* Much attention for the Spanish edition of A Disastrous History of the World, Historia mundial de los desastres. The following articles have recently been posted.:-
Thanks to all!

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Mass poisonings

Up to 90 people have been poisoned by illicit home-made banana gin in Uganda. The drink, much in demand among those who can’t afford commercial alcohol, had in this case been laced with methanol, which is used in anti-freeze. It causes blindness, coma and death.

Between 1990 and 1992, about 300 children died from kidney failure in Bangladesh, after being given paracetamol syrup laced with diethylene glycol, a solvent which is also used in brake fluid. In 2007, the same chemical was responsible for up to 365 deaths in Panama from contaminated cough medicine.

One of the worst mass poisonings took place in Iraq in the early 1970’s. After a series of poor harvests, stocks of grain had become dangerously low, and the authorities imported nearly 100,000 tons of foreign seed, which they insisted should be treated with a mercury fungicide – highly effective, but highly poisonous.

The seed was coloured bright pink, and carried warnings – in English or Spanish – not much use to most Iraqis. Unaware of the danger, many people used it to make bread, which was often reported as tasting delicious, but altogether about 100,000 people were poisoned, with 6,000 dying. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

* Thanks to the Daily Mirror for quoting me on the Icelandic volcano eruption even if they didn’t get the story exactly right – see my comment.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Iraq - a deafening silence

Iraq has mainly been noticeable for its absence in the UK election campaign. In the leaders’ second debate last week, supposedly concentrating on international affairs, there was one innocuous question about the Pope that let everyone agree twice, but none concerning Britain’s biggest foreign policy disaster in at least half a century, though Nick Clegg made it clear that, unlike Gordon Brown’s Labour party and David Cameron’s Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats had always opposed the war.

From Iraq itself the very next day came a reminder of the continuing murderous chaos that the US-UK invasion has unleashed. A wave of bombings killed at least 58 people, most of them blown up near Shia mosques during Friday prayers.

The authorities blamed al-Qaeda. Yes, that is the same al-Qaeda that had been a nonentity in the country before the invasion. They also said they expected more attacks.

More than six weeks after Iraq’s own elections, there are still no officially certified results. Last year more than 4,640 Iraqi civilians met violent deaths. (See also my blogs of July 30, Sept 29, Dec 14, 2009 and Jan 28, 2010.)

Saturday 24 April 2010

Offshore oil disasters

Eleven workers are still missing after the explosion on an oil rig off Louisiana on Tuesday. The rig burned for 36 hours and has now sunk. The rest of the 126 on board were rescued, though four were critically injured.

The worst offshore oil accident was the fire on the Piper Alpha production platform in the North Sea on July 6, 1988, which killed 167, including two crew members on a rescue vessel. Only 59 people survived.

The disaster began with an explosion at 2130, and fire engulfed much of the platform. While men were still trying to escape, 27 minutes later a second blast ripped the structure apart. Flames leapt 700 feet in the air, and could be seen 60 miles away.

An inspector’s report decided the explosion was probably caused by gas escaping from a pressure valve that had been removed for maintenance work. The official inquiry was heavily critical of safety standards on the platform, and the UK’s Department of Energy was stripped of its role as the safety regulator for the North Sea industry with the Health and Safety Executive taking over its functions. (see also my blog of April 3, 2009)

Thursday 22 April 2010

Disaster benefit concerts

The 20 year old American R&B singer Chris Brown is to host a benefit concert for Haiti on May 15 at Richmond, Virginia. It is the latest in a series of disaster benefit concerts that follow the example pioneered by Bengali musician Ravi Shankar.

After what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was hit by the deadliest storm the world has ever seen (see my blog of June 1, 2009), Shankar asked his friend, the former Beatle George Harrison, to help, and they were able to recruit Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and many other big names to perform in New York in front of 40,000 people in August 1971.

Up to one million people had died in the cyclone, and the song George Harrison wrote about the disaster contained the monumental understatement “it sure looks like a mess.” Still, the concert raised a much needed £120,000.

Fourteen years later, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure organised the most famous benefit concert of all – Live Aid – with events in London, Philadelphia and many other places. It was broadcast across the world and was reckoned to have raised about £150 million for famine relief in Ethiopia. This great hunger was also estimated to have cost perhaps a million lives.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Qinghai one week on

China is holding a day of national mourning for those killed in the Qinghai earthquake a week ago (see my blog of April 14). The death toll has now passed 2,000, with another 175 missing, and 12,000 injured. Tens of thousands have been made homeless, and many are living in tents while temperatures drop below freezing at night.

Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns have been heavily involved in the rescue operation, digging out survivors from the rubble and handing out aid, but according to some reports the authorities have now ordered them to withdraw and leave the work to the army and the government.

Although China has suffered some of the world’s worst earthquakes (see my blogs of July 28, 2009, Jan 15 and 22, and Feb 9, 2010), this region has not been struck by a serious one for at least 100 years. This one happened at a depth of around six miles, and measured about 6.9.

The China Earthquake Networks Centre, however, has warned that the country is in an active seismic period. Last year there were 99 quakes with a magnitude of five or more – five times the annual average.

Sunday 18 April 2010

The San Francisco earthquake

This day…..104 years ago saw one of history’s most famous earthquakes - the one that struck San Francisco at just before a quarter past five on the morning of April 18, 1906. It measured about 7.8, with its epicentre around two miles from the city.

For all its fame, it is not one of the deadliest the world has seen. The final death toll was around 3,000. (China’s Tangshan earthquake of 1976, for example, killed at least 240,000 and possibly many more – see also my blogs of July 28, 2009, Jan 22 and 24 and Feb 9, 2010.)

As with so many disasters, it was the aftermath rather than the quake itself that claimed most victims. Some people were drowned when water mains burst, but far more perished in fires that quickly engulfed the largely wooden city. Within half an hour, 50 had broken out, and they burned for three days.

More than 28,000 buildings were destroyed, including every downtown store, and nearly three quarters of San Francisco had to be rebuilt or extensively repaired, while more than half the population was made homeless. Many of the new buildings were designed to be resistant to fire and earthquake, and five years later the city hosted the world’s fair.

Friday 16 April 2010

Volcanic ash

Iceland’s second major volcanic explosion in less than a month (see also my blog of March 21) has led to the cancellation of all flights across the UK for the second day running. Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium and the Netherlands also closed their airspace yesterday, while France and Germany suffered severe disruption.

It is a reminder of how the ash flung out from a volcano can be even more devastating than the eruption itself. The eruption of Laki on Iceland in June, 1783 produced a cloud that spread as far as Moscow and Baghdad. In England, it turned the weather bleak and foggy while in Alaska, the Kauwerak tribe dubbed 1783 “the year summer did not come.” There followed one of the worst winters in 250 years in Europe and America. According to some estimates, the eruption indirectly caused up to 200,000 deaths.

The effects of Laki were probably exacerbated by the eruption of another volcano two months later – Mount Asama in Japan. It lowered temperatures, causing crop failure and famine, with harvests not recovering for a decade.

Indonesia’s Tambora went up in smoke in 1815, producing another year without a summer. Snow fell in Canada and New England in June, and in England in July. The famine and disease of the aftermath were deadly enough to kill perhaps 80,000 in Indonesia and 200,000 in Europe. Alarming, but not as deadly as the prehistoric eruption at Toba (also in Indonesia). The volcanic winter that followed is reckoned to have wiped out 99% of the humans then walking the earth.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

China - land of disasters

At least 400 people have been killed in an earthquake that has struck the remote area of Yushu in China’s western Qinghai province. The quake measured 6.9, compared with 7.0 in Haiti and 8.8 in Chile in February.

Nearly every building in the town of Jiegu is said to have been destroyed. Many Tibetans live in the area, and the relief effort is being hampered by landslides that have blocked roads.

China’s worst earthquake in recent years was the one that struck Sichuan in 2008 killing 87,000, but it is truly a country of disasters. Probably the deadliest earthquake the world has ever seen killed 830,000 people in Shaanxi province in 1556, while China also suffered the worst floods in history, with the Yellow River killing up to 2.5 million when it burst its banks in 1889, and the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers accounting for perhaps 3 million in 1931.

More than 1,540 miners perished in the world’s worst mining disaster at Honkeiko in 1942, while in the late 1870’s up to 13 million people died in one of the country's regular famines. The great hunger of 1959-61, hugely aggravated by Chairman Mao’s doctrinaire policies, brought a death toll of perhaps 40 million, while an estimated 36 million were killed in the An Lushan rebellion of the 8th century. For more details on all these stories, see A Disastrous History of the World.

(See also my blogs of Jan 10, Feb 22, March 27, May 11, July 28, Nov 19 and 23, 2009, Jan 15 and 22, Feb 9 and 15, 2010.)

Tuesday 13 April 2010

D-Day - civilian casualties

I’ve been reading Anthony Beevor’s impressive tome, D-Day. Beevor puts the number of French civilians killed in the months leading up to the 1944 Allied landings in Normandy at 15,000.

The Allies’ trump card was their air supremacy, but Churchill had mooted the idea of setting a ceiling of 10,000 for the number of French civilian casualties during the campaign. After that bombing would have to cease. The suggestion was rejected.

About 3,000 French people were killed in the first 24 hours of the operation, double the number of US service personnel who died. Among the places that suffered particularly heavy casualties during the invasion were Saint-Lo where about 300 died, and Caen, where the death toll was over 800.

The Germans, meanwhile, continued their systematic murder of French civilians. On June 8, 1944 they hanged 98 citizens of Tulle from the town’s trees. Two days later, in the most notorious massacre of all, they descended on Oradour-sur-Glane, shooting all the men, then herding the women and children into the church, which they set on fire. A total of 642 died, and the Nazis had got the wrong village. They were supposed to be taking revenge for an attack by the Resistance at Oradour-sur-Vayres, 15 miles away. Altogether, nearly 20,000 French civilians perished during the campaign.