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.