Thursday 20 December 2012

Hillsborough - closing in on the truth?

So, 23 years after the Hillsborough disaster, the friends and loved ones of victims are to get a second chance to uncover the truth, and today the British government announced it would provide the money to ensure they get proper legal representation at new inquests.

It was at the FA Cup semi-final on April 15, 1989 that 96 Liverpool supporters died when a severe crush developed at the Leppings Lane end of Sheffield Wednesday’s ground.   Ordering new inquests, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said ‘deliberate misinformation’ had been disseminated about the disaster.

He expressed particular concern about the role of the police, and about false accusations that drunkenness among fans had played an important part in the tragedy.    These allegations, he said, were ‘unacceptable and unfair’.  

The judge also praised the victims’ families for their dogged pursuit of the truth.   What a disgrace that it has taken so long for them to be heard.  The story of the disaster can be found in A Disastrous History of Britain.

*A new blog about my Historia mundial de los desastres.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Bangladesh factory fire 'sabotage'

Last month’s factory fire on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, in which at least 110 people died (see my blog of Nov 25) was caused by sabotage according to an official inquiry.

But the head of the inquiry, Main Uddin Khandaker, added that the owner had been guilty of ‘severe negligence’.  He said factory officials had padlocked exits and prevented workers from escaping.

It is claimed that the factory’s fire certificate was out of date and that the company had permission for only a three-storey building even though it stood nine storeys high.  

The owner of the Tazreen factory has denied the building was unsafe.   It made clothing for a number of well-known retailers.  After the blaze, thousands protested in the streets, demanding higher safety standards.

*A new review of my book Disaster!

Friday 14 December 2012

1986 air crash - accident or murder?

Police in South Africa have launched a fresh investigation into the plane crash in 1986 that killed the Mozambican president Samora Machel and 33 other people, including government ministers and officials.    The Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-134, taking them home from an international meeting in Lusaka, came down in a mountainous area of South Africa.

The following year, a South African judge, assisted by experts from the USA and the UK, said the cause was negligence on the part of the crew, but Russian experts working with the Mozambican authorities claimed the pilot was lured to disaster by a decoy navigation beacon.

Now there are reports that investigators have found detailed new evidence, including a sworn statement from a military intelligence agent of the apartheid era, plus documents, photographs and voice recordings.

The South African apartheid regime carried out a series of military strikes in Mozambique and other Africa states in the 1980’s. 

Friday 7 December 2012

London killer fogs

Sixty years ago this week, London was in the grip of perhaps the deadliest fog in its history.  The air was thick yellow, with sulphur dioxide levels ten times higher than usual.   Visibility was reduced to 20 yards, sometimes less.

Not surprisingly, transport came to a standstill, and the smog even got inside buildings so that a performance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre had to be abandoned because the audience couldn’t see the stage.

The foul air was estimated to have caused the deaths of up to 12,000 Londoners, and the government set up an inquiry to try and prevent anything like it happening again.    The result was the Clean Air Act of 1956, which  improved things dramatically.   

Now the Clean Air in London campaign is complaining that Mayor Boris Johnson has been quietly lobbying to dilute European rules on air standards in spite of a report in 2010 which said that 4,300 Londoners a year were still dying because of poor air quality in the capital.

*You can read more about the 1952 smog in my book London’s Disasters.  It also features the Regent’s Park skating disaster, recalled in a fascinating series on London’s lesser known disasters on the Londonist website -

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Philippines typhoon - being prepared helps

At least 200 people are now believed to have been killed in the southern Philippines by Typhoon Bopha, and 70 per cent of the agricultural land in the area is said to have been damaged.

Compostela Valley province, in eastern Mindanao, is the area worst hit, where mudslides engulfed a school and a village hall being used as evacuation centres.   Among those killed or missing are soldiers who had gone to help. Rescue efforts are being hampered because many roads are blocked by fallen trees and collapsed bridges.  

In December last year, Typhoon Washi killed more than 1,300 people in the Southern Philippines.  Bopha is actually stronger than its deadly predecessor, but this time people were better prepared thanks to the media, telephone warnings, early evacuations and a special website.

The death toll has also been reduced because Bopha had slowed down a little before it hit some particularly vulnerable areas.  The deadliest ever typhoon to hit the Philippines is believed to have been Thelma which killed up to 8,000 people in November 1991.   (See also my blogs of 28 Sept and 10 Oct, 2009; and 6 Jan 2011.)

Monday 3 December 2012

Bhopal + 28 - protests and a museum

On the 28th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster, victims and their supporters held rallies to complain that they have still not been adequately compensated.    A march on the residence of a leading politician to deliver a letter was halted by police.

Activists complain that still no one has been properly called to account for the disaster, in which poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked from Union Carbide’s plant, killing perhaps 3,800 people in the immediate aftermath and causing illness and death to many thousands more in the years that followed.

Meanwhile the ‘Remember Bhopal Trust’ is setting up a mobile museum made up of articles donated by the families of victims, including materials used in protests over the last 28 years.  From December 2013, it will tour India on a bus.

The curator says they have refused any government funding, arguing the government ‘has no moral authority to set up the museum as they were themselves a party to the gas disaster.'  (See also my blogs of Aug 1, 2009; June 7, and July 13, 2010.)

Sunday 25 November 2012

Another deadly factory fire

Last month I blogged about what was perhaps the deadliest factory fire in history in a clothing works in Karachi (see my post of Oct 15).  Now a fire at a clothing factory on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, is believed to cost more than 112 lives.

The blaze started late on Saturday on the ground floor of the factory, perhaps because of an electrical fault, trapping workers on upper floors.  Some jumped to their deaths from windows.  The building was in a narrow lane, making it hard for fire crews to reach the blaze.

Thousands flocked to the factory looking for relatives who worked there.   A senior fire official said that if there had been a fire escape on the outside of the building, it might have save many lives, while the factory owner said he had never had a fire before at any of his seven premises.

Clothes account for up to 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s exports, and about two million people work in the industry.    Two years ago, another fire in a factory nearby resulted in the deaths of 25 workers.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

AIDS - good news and bad news

The United Nation’s latest report on the prevalence of the AIDS virus across the world shows that the number of children newly infected last year is nearly a quarter fewer than the figure for 2009, though that still means there were 330,000 new infections.

The number of new infections among adults on the other hand has remained broadly stable for the last four years at about 2.5 million.   Across the world, 34 million people are thought to have the virus.

Over recent years, the number of victims receiving drugs that can keep the virus at bay has increased substantially, but the report reckons that 7 million people who need them still do not get them.   Sub-Saharan Africa remains the part of the world that is worst hit, though some countries there have managed to reduce the number of new cases.

In contrast, the number of new infections in Russia is growing, and there have been increases in AIDS-related deaths in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.  The UN has ambitious targets to reduce the spread of the virus and provide treatment for all who need it by 2015.

Thursday 15 November 2012

The Lake Geneva tsunami

Another lake.  Another ancient disaster.  In 563, a tsunami devastated Lake Geneva.   A massive rockfall near the mouth of the Rhone at the opposite end from the city of Geneva sent a huge wave crashing from one end of the lake to the other.

Lausanne was hit by a 40 foot wave, and by the time it reached Geneva, it was still towering to 25 feet.  A contemporary chronicler wrote that the water burst over the city walls and swept away a bridge.  Along the lake, villages were destroyed, and many people perished.   The accepted explanation for the disaster is that a rockfall had created a natural dam across the river, which eventually gave way, unleashing the wave.

But scientists at the University of Geneva have offered another idea.    They suggest that sediment had accumulated at the mouth of the Rhone, forming an underwater delta with a number of deep channels.

When the rocks fell they destroyed these canyons, and this generated the tsunami.    In 1806, a landslide into another Swiss lake, Lake Lauerz, triggered a 60 foot wave which killed ten people.

Sunday 11 November 2012

The disaster that nearly wiped out humanity

A Spanish-language blog has picked up the story of the earliest disaster featured in my book A Disastrous History of the World (Historia Mundial de los desastres).  A disaster that may have come close to wiping out the human race.

It was a huge volcanic eruption more than 70,000 years ago at what is now Lake Toba (pictured above) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.   It is thought to have been one of the most powerful ever, at about 28 times the strength of the Tambora eruption of 1815, the biggest of modern times.

The eruption itself must have been deadly enough, but much worse was the volcanic winter that followed.   The ancient volcano spewed out an estimated 670 cubic miles of debris that dimmed the sun’s rays for six years.

As catastrophic global cooling resulted, the world’s estimated human population at that time of a million was reduced to perhaps just 10,000.   The eruption gouged out a vast crater which filled with water to produce picturesque Lake Toba, now a noted tourist destination.

Friday 9 November 2012

Store collapses

A search is still going on for any survivors in the Melcom store building in Ghana’s capital, Accra, 48 hours after it collapsed, amid reports of voices being heard from the rubble.    So far 9 bodies have been recovered, and 69 people taken out alive.

Officials from Ghana's National Disaster Management Organization have said the building had poor quality foundations, and Ghana’s president, John Dramani Mahama, has said anyone found to have been negligent ‘will pay a price’.

A property developer who had been wanted for questioning has given himself up, declaring: ‘There is no way I will put up a building and do shoddy work.’  The president has declared the site a disaster zone and suspended his campaign for next month's elections.

Perhaps the deadliest store collapse in history happened at the Sampoong department store in Seoul, South Korea, in 1995.   Cracks had been appearing in the structure for weeks before it crashed down, causing the deaths of more than 500 people.


Monday 5 November 2012

Sandy's shadow

New York City is still facing major disruption from ‘superstorm’ Sandy.   Up to 40,000 people have been driven from their homes, public transport is still severely disrupted, and 130,000 residents are still without electricity.

Across New York State, there are another 600,000 without power, as well as nearly a million in New Jersey.    The storm is thought to have caused 106 deaths in the USA, including 40 in New York City, and another 69 in the Caribbean.

At 900 miles wide, Sandy was the largest storm ever seen in the Atlantic.   It hit the Big Apple with a record 14 foot tidal surge, shutting down the subway system, and closing nearly all the road tunnels and bridges, virtually isolating Manhattan.    The National Guard had to be called out to deliver emergency supplies.

Only last year, a report from the New York State Energy Research and Development Corporation had delivered a warning of how devastating a major storm combined with a tidal surge could be for the City.
*The Londonist website has reminded us of another 'forgotten' London fire - the Colney Hatch asylum fire of 1903.   See also p 107 of A Disastrous History of Britain.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Earthquake forecasts - get it wrong, go to gaol

‘Never make predictions,’ said Sam Goldwyn, ‘especially about the future.’  In April 2009, an earthquake devastated the medieval Italian town of L'Aquila, killing more than 300 people.   This week, seven scientists were sentenced to prison terms for failing to foretell it.

The group were all members of  the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Serious Risks.   Before the disaster, there had been a number of tremors in the area, but they told officials that, although a major earthquake was possible, it was not likely. 

In court, it was said that following their assessment, many people stayed in their homes and perished, while others who decided to remain outside in the street survived.    The experts were accused of providing ‘inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory’ information.

All of them are appealing, and remain free for the moment.     The head of the commission and his deputy have both resigned in protest, saying the verdict puts scientists in an impossible position.    More than 5,000 of their colleagues have sent an open letter to the president, supporting the convicted men. 

Sunday 21 October 2012

Aberfan + 46

Some place names become synonymous with disaster – Krakatoa, Chernobyl, Flixborough, Aberfan.   It was there on this day 26 years ago that a mountain of waste from the local coal mine buried a school , killing 144 people including 116 children.

It was a foggy morning, and teachers and pupils had no warning of the impending disaster.   The first they knew was when they saw a wave of slurry higher than a house heading towards them, as one child put it, ‘as fast as a car’.    It uprooted trees before hitting the school ‘like a big wave’, crushing the buildings as well as houses nearby.

The tip had slid half a mile, burying teachers and pupils in their classrooms.  Local miners stopped work and joined with two thousand men and women hacking at the rubble with shovels, picks and bare hands to pull out whoever they could .

The slag heap had a stream running beneath it, and had also moved in 1959 and 1964, but warnings were not heeded, and an official inquiry declared the disaster ‘could and should have been prevented’.    For more details, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Monday 15 October 2012

World's worst factory fire + London's worst post-war fire

The Sindh High Court in Pakistan has instructed the provincial government and other relevant parties to submit their reports on the Karachi clothing factory fire within the next week.    What was perhaps the worst factory fire in history killed at least 258 people on September 11.

There were about 400 people working at the Ali Enterprises factory when a boiler exploded and set alight chemicals stored in the building.    It is claimed that exit doors were locked and that windows were covered with iron bars.

Many of the victims died from suffocation, while some of those who managed to jump from upstairs windows survived, though often at the cost of fractured limbs.     Eventually rescue workers had to break down one of the walls to get access to the upper floors.

A few hours earlier, a fire had broken out in a shoe factory in Lahore  when sparks from a faulty generator set fire to chemicals.     At least 25 people were killed.

* London’s deadliest post-war fire - forgotten by many, but not by the Londonist website (or by me)

Friday 12 October 2012

Munitions explosions

While I was away one of the stories I missed was an intriguing item from the Economist on September 29 about explosions at ammunition depots.   Something I have already blogged about on many occasions – see below.

Last month saw a blast at a weapons store at Afyonkarahisar in Turkey that killed 25 soldiers, while in March, in one of the worst munitions accidents ever, 250 people perished in Congo-Brazzaville, as debris was flung over a 2 mile radius.

Since global records started being kept in 1995, 4,600 people have been killed, and last year was the worst single year with 442 deaths in 46 explosions.    Many stores are located near towns, and those in Africa, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union are often poorly run.

Perhaps the deadliest munitions disaster of all time happened in Nigeria in 2002, when a fire began at an open air market in a barracks and then spread to the armaments store.   Perhaps 2,000 people perished, many of them crushed to death in the panic to escape.

 (See also my blogs of May 27, 2010; Feb 17, 2011; March 5, May 20, July 25, and Aug 2, 2012.)

Saturday 6 October 2012

Floods in deserts

That’s me in the Lower Antelope Canyon near Page in the deserts of Arizona, USA,  which I visited last month.  It’s place of bizarre, fascinating rock formations, but also a reminder that disastrous floods can strike almost anywhere, even in deserts.

On August 12, 1997, 11 tourists, including 7 from France, were walking through the long narrow, ‘slot’ canyon.   There had been little rain close to the site, but a thunderstorm had dumped a lot of water into the canyon basin seven miles upstream.

By the time it swept into the slot canyon, this flash flood was swelled by logs and stones.    The tourists’  guide managed to wedge himself behind an outcrop, and for a time he held on to two of his party, but eventually the careering waters dragged them from his grasp.

Then he too was swept downstream.   He was found alive on a ledge – the only survivor.   Two of the victims’ bodies have never been found.     You can find more detail here -

Picture by Anne Clements

Thursday 4 October 2012

Chinese edition of 'World Disasters'

Just out - the Chinese edition of A Disastrous History of the World (published in the USA as Disaster!).    Published by the Inner Mongolia People's Publishing House.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Brazil - prison riot anniversary

In Sao Paulo, hundreds of people have been marking the 20th anniversary of a prison massacre in which 111 inmates at the Carandiru gaol were killed. 

The establishment held 10,000 prisoners in 1992, when a riot began with a row between two prisoners over a football match.  It soon developed into a fight between rival gangs.  When police tried to restore order, critics accuse them of killing indiscriminately as they shot prisoners at point- blank range.

Some inmates were said to have been killed by police dogs, and an evangelical pastor described his own escape as a miracle.     The commander of the raid was convicted for using excessive force in 2001, but acquitted on appeal five years later.    Soon after he was found dead in his flat.   

Now dozens more police are due to face charges relating to the operation, though officers have always claimed they were obeying orders.    Carandiru was closed and demolished in 2002, but Brazil still has half a million people in prison, the fourth biggest total in the world.

Sunday 30 September 2012

Iraq - what a mess we left behind us

Just days after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan castigated Tony Blair for failing to prevent the Iraq War, another dreadful reminder of its disastrous consequences, as a series of explosions ripped through the country, killing at least 9 people.

Worst hit was the town of Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad, where 8 people died and more than 20 were injured by 3 car bombs.   According to some reports, the bombs were placed near Shia Muslim homes in the mainly Sunni town.

On September 9, at least 58 people were killed in a wave of attacks in 10 cities.   Then the bloodiest were in Amara, 185 miles south of Baghdad, where two car bombs exploded outside a Shia shrine and market place.

Just over a week later, at least 7 people lost their lives in a suicide car bomb near the heavily guarded International Zone in Baghdad, while June saw the deadliest day since American troops withdrew, with 84 people killed and nearly 300 injured.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Pakistan floods YET again

I have been away for a month, but some things don’t change.   My last blog at the end of August was about floods in Pakistan, so is this one.

During the last two weeks, heavy monsoon rains have caused floods that have killed more than 400 people and driven tens of thousands from their homes, with the province of Sindh worst hit.    

Pakistan’s worst floods came in 2010 (see picture) when nearly 1,800 people died and more than 20 million were affected in some way, leaving about a fifth of the country under water, and causing damage estimated at up to £30 billion.

Sindh also suffered badly from heavy rains in 2011, when again more than 400 people lost their lives, and 1.7 million acres of arable land were inundated in one of the country’s most important agricultural areas.

Sunday 26 August 2012

Pakistan floods again

Pakistan suffered dreadful floods in 2010, when nearly  2,000 people were killed, and last year, when the death toll was around 250.   Now at least 22 people have been drowned in flash floods in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while at least another 20 have perished across the border in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan in the heaviest rains there for more than 30 years.

Around 20,000 people have been driven from their homes, schools have closed, and transport has been disrupted.   A number of the casualties occurred when buildings collapsed, and rescue workers say they fear more bodies may be found as the waters recede.

The Pakistan floods of 2010 affected up to 20 million people, and left about a fifth of the country under water, while the total cost of the damage inflicted was up to £30 billion.

 (See also my blogs of Aug 11 and 23 and Sept 7, 2010, and Jan 27 and Sept 19, 2011.)

*On this web page, you can read the first chapter of my book Disaster! absolutely free -

Wednesday 22 August 2012

England's devastating Civil War

On this day………….370 years ago, King Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham, effectively kicking off the English Civil War of his Cavaliers against the Parliamentary Roundheads.

The war is often portrayed in England as having been a relatively gentlemanly affair, but it has been estimated that 85,000 people died as a result of military action and at least another 100,000 from disease caused by the disorder of war.

At least 150 towns were damaged, and 11,000 houses destroyed.     Villages such as Boarstall in Buckinghamshire were razed to the ground.    The Royalists sacked Bolton and Liverpool, while the Parliamentarians plundered Worcester ruthlessly.

At Beaminster in Dorset in 1644, a quarrel broke out among Royalist troops occupying the town.  A house was set on fire, and within two hours, the flames, fanned by a strong breeze, had burned down more than 140 homes, making this the most destructive fire in England in more than 30 years.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Landslides more deadly than realised

According to a study by Durham University in the UK, landslides kill up to ten times as many people as we thought.    Its authors said the worldwide death toll from 2004 to 2010 was 32,300, compared with earlier estimates of between 3,000 and 7,000.

The main author, David Petley, said most data tended to record only landslides in which ten or more people are killed, when many victims perish in much smaller events. 

The study identified the most vulnerable regions as being countries along the Himalayan Arc - India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh - plus China, and Central and South America.  It suggested that better management of forests and discouraging people from living in vulnerable areas were the best way of reducing the danger.

Perhaps the world’s deadliest landslide was the one that hit coastal areas of Venezuela after torrential rain in the last few days of the twentieth century.   Estimates of the number killed range as high as 30,000.   For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday 13 August 2012

AIDS - the German Patient

When I first reported on AIDS in 1985, it seemed like a death sentence for those diagnosed with the disease.   Then along came antiretroviral drugs which allowed people to live with the illness provided they could afford the medicines.   Now comes real hope of a cure.

Last month’s International AIDS Conference in Washington DC reverberated with talk about a man from Berlin named Timothy Brown, who was already infected with the HIV virus (which causes AIDS) when he underwent radical treatment for the leukaemia from which he also suffered – namely, the complete destruction of his immune system.

To provide him with a new system, his doctor found a donor with a rare genetic mutation which gives immunity to HIV infection.   Then he treated Mr Brown with bone marrow cells from the donor.   After this, the HIV virus seems to have disappeared from Mr Brown’s body.

The treatment would be too expensive and too risky to try on a large scale, but it is one of a number of signs that a cure may be possible.   In the meantime, the disease still managed to kill 1.7 million people last year.

Friday 3 August 2012

Women and children last?

When the Titanic sank in 1912, there was a lot of controversy about whether some men had elbowed their way into lifeboats ahead of women and children, but a new study from Sweden suggests the evacuation of the liner was a model of chivalry compared with what happens in most shipwrecks.

About 70 percent of the women and children on board Titanic were saved, compared with just 20 percent of the men, but the researchers from Uppsala University also examined another 15 sinkings since the 1850’s involving around 15,000 passengers and crew from more than 30 different countries.

They discovered that men generally had twice as good a chance of surviving as women, and that children fared worst of all.   Crew members did better than passengers, and while Capt Edward J Smith went down with the Titanic, only 8 of the other 15 skippers met the same fate.

Nor was there any evidence overall that British crews were more selfless than those of other nations.    The most crucial consideration appeared to be whether the captain gave a clear order to give priority to women and children.    On Titanic such an order was given, and there were reports of officers shooting at any men who disobeyed.

Thursday 2 August 2012

Another historic explosion - Delft 1654

Watched an excellent programme by Andrew Graham-Dixon about the artist Jan Vermeer on BBC-4 the other night, and learned about a huge explosion that had previously escaped my attention.    In 1654, 30 tons of gunpowder were being stored in a former convent in the painter’s home town of Delft. 

On the morning of October 12, the keeper of the magazine opened the store to check a sample of powder.   For reasons we do not know, the whole thing blew up.   Fortunately, many local people were away at a market in Schiedam and a fair in The Hague.

Even so more than 100 people were killed, and thousands injured.   According to an account written 13 years later, the explosion happened with ‘such a horrible rush and force, that the arch of heaven seemed to crack and to burst, the whole earth to split, and hell to open its jaws.’

All that was left of the store was a crater fifteen feet deep, while buildings were flattened for ‘hundreds of feet’ around.     More than 200 houses were destroyed, and 300 seriously damaged.

Friday 27 July 2012

Korean War + 59 - still alive and kicking

The rumpus over showing the wrong flag at the North Korean women’s opening Olympic football match (above is the one that should have been used) reminds us that 59 years after an armistice, there is no peace between North and South Korea.     Today is the anniversary of that armistice.

The Korean War is seen as the first Cold War conflict.    At the end of World War Two, the Americans occupied the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviet Union the northern end, where they established a Communist regime.     War broke out in 1950.

A United Nations force dominated by the Americans, but including also troops from the UK and 20 other countries, fought against the Chinese and North Koreans.   The US had nearly 40,000 of its servicemen killed, and South Korean military losses were around 46,000, while perhaps 200,000 North Koreans and 400,000 Chinese troops were killed.

Both sides committed atrocities against civilians.   In areas it occupied, the North Korean army executed all the educated people it could find, while the South Korean regime killed left-wing and communist sympathisers.      Total civilian deaths are estimated at up to 3 million.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Milan explosion 1521

Just back from Milan and a visit to the magnificent Sforza Castle.   It was originally built by the Visconti family in the fourteenth century, but when they fell from power in 1447, the Milanese people declared a republic and tore it down. 
Three years later, with the new republic at war with Venice, the great military commander, Francesco Sforza, took power, and rebuilt the castle.   The family established a new dynasty, and employed Leonardo da Vinci as an artistic factotum, enabling him to paint The Last Supper in the city.

In the late 15th century, the French invaded Italy, and sparked off decades of war.   Louis XII drove out the Sforzas and took over the castle.    It was still under French control in 1521 when lightning struck the Filarete Tower (pictured), which was being used as a gunpowder store.    The resulting explosion demolished the tower, seriously damaged the castle walls and killed many people.

It was rebuilt by the last of the Sforzas, Francesco II, but by the mid-19th century, the castle had fallen into such a poor state of repair that some people wanted it demolished.   Instead a lengthy restoration project ensured that it survived.  

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Floods - now Japan

The latest country to face deadly floods is Japan, where at least 27 people have been killed.   Most of the deaths came on the southern island of Kyushu, where rain was falling at the rate of nearly four inches an hour, causing landslides and flash floods.

The authorities said that in the city of Yame, a 70 year old man inspecting his paddy fields was killed in a landslide while an 83 year old woman perished when her home was buried in mud.

About 100 homes were flooded in Kyoto, and there were worries about the famous Golden Pavilion (pictured) when the waters overflowed into the pond by which it stands, but the building escaped serious damage.

A quarter of a million evacuees are now beginning to return to their homes, though the Japan Meteorological Agency is warning that more heavy rain may be on the way.

*Here’s a report I did for BBC Television’s Top Gear programme back in 1993.

Friday 13 July 2012

Nigeria - another deadly tanker crash

More than 100 people are believed to have been killed after a petrol tanker crashed near the village of Okogbe in southern Nigeria.    Many of the victims are thought to have rushed to the scene to try to collect fuel that had spilled onto the road.

The tanker is reported to have collided with three other vehicles, but it did not burst into flames immediately.    By the time it exploded, it was surrounded by people.  The authorities say that 95 bodies have been recovered so far, but it is believed that many more have died.

Nigeria has been the scene of a number of disastrous tanker crashes.   Back in 2000, a tanker that had been poorly maintained careered into a traffic jam on the motorway from Ife to Ibadan. It exploded in a huge fireball, destroying more than 100 vehicles and killing up to 200 people.   

Then in 2009, at least 70 people were killed when a tanker overturned and exploded as the driver tried to negotiate deep potholes on the Enugu-Onitsha highway.  Perhaps the deadliest tanker fire of all came at Sange in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010 when a tanker overturned as it overtook a bus, and 230 people were killed.  

*A new reivew of my book Historia Mundial de los Desastres -

Monday 9 July 2012

Floods - now it's Russia's turn

Bangladesh, India - now it is Russia’s turn to be hit by deadly floods caused by torrential rain.    At least 170 people have been killed in the Krasnodar region, way down in the country’s deep south.

11 inches of rain fell in just one night, bringing the worst flash floods in living memory, and forcing many people to shelter on roofs or in trees, as more than 5,000 homes were flooded.

Most of the deaths happened in and around the town of Krymsk, but deaths were also reported from the Black Sea resort of Gelendzhik and the port town of Novorossiysk.   Local people complained that they were given little or no warning.

Activists have blamed the ferocity of the flood on the opening of sluice gates at the local reservoir, though the authorities have denied this.    Now President Putin has ordered an inquiry into the causes of the disaster.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Monsoon floods strike India

Last week (June 28), I blogged about the floods in Bangladesh.   Now it has been revealed that monsoon floods in India have claimed more than 230 lives.  India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has described the floods as among the worst of recent years.   In some areas, they are said to me the most severe in more than 60 years.

At least 95 people have been killed, and nearly 2 million made homeless in Assam in the far north-east of the country.   The Brahmaputra river has overflowed, inundating more than 2,000 villages and destroying many homes.

Most of the victims were swept away by the waters, though 16 were reported to have been buried by landslides unleashed by the heavy rains.   Nearly half a million people are now living in relief camps, while some are simply taking shelter on higher ground.

Military helicopters have been dropping drinking water and food, while soldiers are using speedboats to rescue people stranded on rooftops.   The government has announced immediate aid of $90m for the stricken areas.

Friday 29 June 2012

Libya's secret disaster history

It is sixteen years since more than 1,250 inmates were gunned down at Abu Salim gaol in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, but this is the first time the Libyan people have been able to mark the anniversary.

The prisoners were killed on June 28 and 29, 1996 for protesting to demand better conditions.   Colonel Gaddafi’s brother-in-law, Abdullah al-Senussi, who is now under arrest, is accused of ordering the massacre.

While the Gaddafi regime was in power, victims’ families did not dare mark the anniversary, but now the prison has been turned into a museum where visitors can seen pictures of those killed, secret notes written by inmates and other objects from the notorious history of Abu Salim, where some were held for many years.

Although many old scores are being settled by the gun in post-revolutionary Libya, the judiciary has started prosecuting members of the former government.   Mr Senussi, is wanted by the International Criminal Court, but is currently being held by the Mauritanian authorities who have charged him with entering the country illegally.

Thursday 28 June 2012

Bangladesh flood

After some of the heaviest rain Bangladesh has suffered in years, floods and landslides have killed at least 70 people, and left another 200,000 homeless.     Eighteen inches of rain are said to have fallen in the port of Chittagong in just 24 hours.

At least 15 people died there, while another 30 perished in Bandarban to the south-east.  The authorities fear more people may be trapped under mud, and rescue efforts are continuing to find and free them.

In Sylhet in the north-east of the country, house roofs are three feet beneath the water, and local people have had to scramble up onto high ground, or take refuge in boats.   Districts around the capital, Dhaka, have also been inundated.

A monsoon flood in Bangladesh is said to have killed nearly 29,000 in 1974, though some of these may have perished in the famine that followed.    It happened less than four years after the deadliest cyclone in history killed perhaps half a million of its people. 

Sunday 17 June 2012

Another prison fire

Thirteen prisoners have been killed in a fire in a gaol in south-east Turkey’s Sanliurfa province.    Another five have been injured.

According to some reports, prisoners set fire to their bedding in a protest, though this has been denied by the governor.    It took firefighters an hour and a half to put the blaze out.   An MP from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party was among the prison’s inmates, but is not believed to have been hurt.

This year saw what was probably the deadliest prison fire in history at the Comayagua Penitentiary in Honduras, where 360 people were killed in February including inmates’ spouses on conjugal visits.

The cause of the Honduras fire is still unclear, with the authorities talking about an electrical fault while some survivors said an inmate started it.   Critics complained that Comayagua was overcrowded.

Friday 15 June 2012

The long arm of 9/11

More than 10 years after the attack on the World Trade Centre, New Yorkers are still developing illnesses that may be related to the disaster.   In 2004, the original fund for the injured and bereaved was closed after paying out $7 billion.

The collapse of the buildings had  released a toxic cloud of glass fibres, asbestos, lead, pulverised cement and assorted carcinogens, but just days after, the Environmental Protection Agency said the air in lower Manhattan was safe.

As people continued to fall ill, in 2010, the fund was reopened, but it did not cover cancer.    Firemen, police officers and former pupils at a school near the site are among those who have been diagnosed, but it is hard to prove their illnesses are directly related to the disaster.  

In March, an advisory committee suggested cancer should be covered, but it is not clear for how long this would extend.  As with Hiroshima and Chernobyl, for some, it might be years more before tumours appear.     There are also complaints that victims of other American disasters, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and Hurricane Katrina, were not nearly so generously compensated.

Sunday 3 June 2012

The long arm of Chernobyl

It’s a long way from Chernobyl to Wales, but until this weekend there were still restrictions on movement of sheep from more than 300 Welsh farms as a result of fall-out from the nuclear disaster 26 years ago.

After the explosion, radioactive particles became lodged in upland peat, and passed to sheep grazing the land, so they had to be tested before they could be sold.

At first, nearly 10,000 British farms were affected.   Over the years this came down to 327 in Wales and a further eight in England, and now these final restrictions have been removed.

At Chernobyl itself, work has begun on a huge new metal shelter to cover the stricken reactor.   After the disaster on April 26, 1986, a concrete ‘sarcophagus’ was hastily erected, but for years it has been crumbling, allowing radiation to leak out.  According to some estimates, the disaster cost of up to 200,000 lives.

 (See also my blogs of April 4, 2009, March 14, 2011 and April 29, 2012)