Thursday 26 February 2015

97 years ago - a dreadful racecourse disaster

On this day……..97 years ago, about 670 people were killed in a disastrous fire at Hongkong's Happy Valley racecourse. The track had been opened in 1846 to provide entertainment for British people in the colony, but had become even more popular with the Chinese.

On 26 February, 1918, thousands of people had flocked to the course, but just as the runners and riders were lining up for the first race, a huge fire broke out in highly inflammable temporary stands made of rattan and bamboo.

A reporter wrote that ‘awful confusion ensued’, and that the stands collapsed in a few seconds, with a sound like the ‘rasping of a saw’. A survivor recounted how he had at first urged people to stay calm, but that the structure had collapsed and he had found himself pinned under debris. He managed to cut himself out with a pocket knife.

An official inquiry declared that most of the dead were Chinese women and children. The cause of the fire has never been established, though it may have been an overturned cooking pot. Among the factors that turned it into a disaster were that too many people had been admitted to the stands, and that the inadequate water supply prevented the fire brigade from getting the flames under control until it was too late. 

Wednesday 18 February 2015

The price of glory. What Britain lost from winning World War Two.

That excellent television series, The World at War, has resurfaced as we approach the 75th anniversary of the conflict's end. I have just been watching the last episode, in which the American historian, Stephen Ambrose, muses on the idea that Germany benefited from losing the war much more than the UK did from winning it.

'What did Britain get out of the war?' he asks. 'Not very much. She lost a very great deal. I suppose if you want to look at it positively, she got a moral claim against the world as the nation that stood alone against Hitler for a year, and had provided the moral leadership against the Nazis at a time when everyone else was prepared to cave in to the Nazis.'

While Britain stood alone against Hitler, US President Roosevelt announced that although America would not fight, it would be 'the arsenal of democracy', providing Britain with the weapons it needed.

But it was at a price. Britain, virtually bankrupted by the war effort and with many areas of its cities in ruins, was left at the end with debts of over £1 billion to the US, which were not paid off until 2006. By then the British Empire and Britain's status as a world power had gone - stripped away by the crippling cost of standing alone against Hitler. 

Moral claims do not put any pounds in the bank.

Monday 16 February 2015

Fight against Ebola hindered by attacks on aid workers

I have blogged a number of times about attacks on health workers vaccinating people against polio in Pakistan (24 February, 3 March, and 10 December, 2014), so how depressing to report that local people are attacking aid workers helping the fight against Ebola in Guinea.

The Red Cross says they are being subjected to about 10 assaults a month. The latest happened on Sunday when two volunteers were beaten while trying to conduct a safe burial. Traditional funeral rituals can help spread the virus. Last year eight aid workers were hacked to death in Guinea.

Apparently, many Guineans believe that those who come to bury the dead, disinfect areas and bring information about the disease are in fact spreading it.

And alarm bells are ringing. After several weeks of decline, the number of new cases is rising again. So far, in its deadliest outbreak ever, Ebola has claimed nearly 9,270 victims; more than 2,030 of them in Guinea. Liberia has been worst hit with nearly 3,860 while Sierra Leone has suffered more than 3,360.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

More bloody football

The stampede at a Cairo football match which cost 22 fans their lives is the second major football disaster in Egypt in just 3 years. In February 2012, 74 fans were killed in a riot at a match in Port Said.

Since then, the authorities have limited the number of supporters allowed into matches. Only 5,000 tickets are said to have been made available for Sunday’s game between Zamalek and ENPPI at a ground which could hold 30,000.

The authorities claim that fans without tickets tried to storm the ground, while supporters say police fired tear gas and bird shot as they were being forced to go through a fenced-in passageway about 12 feet (3.7m) wide, causing the fatal stampede.

The match went ahead, but football has now once again been suspended in Egypt. President al-Sisi has promised an investigation into the disaster, but relations between the security services and football supporters are known to be strained because of the part played by fans in bringing down President Mubarak.  (See also my blogs of 2 February, 2012 and 29 January, 2013.)

Saturday 7 February 2015

Boko Haram terrorists move into Niger

The Islamic fanatics of Boko Haram have launched their first assault on Niger, targeting the border town of Bosso. Until now most of the group's attacks have been in Nigeria, though it has also ventured into Cameroon where it killed at least 70 people in Fotokol on Wednesday.

Boko Haram terrorists reportedly attacked Bosso in the early morning using heavy weapons. The Niger government later claimed it had driven them back, killing 109 terrorists, while a civilian and four soldiers also died. Bosso is home to thousands of refugees who have fled the violence in Nigeria.

The Nigerian army has been heavily criticised for its failure to combat Boko Haram, while it killed at least 5,000 people in the country, and forced a million to flee their homes. Now Chad has deployed 2,500 troops to help Cameroon and Niger fight the terrorists.

Boko Haram, which means ‘Western education is forbidden’, has sworn allegiance to so-called ‘Islamic State’ in the Middle East. It is still believed to be holding 300 Nigerian schoolgirls it kidnapped last year. (See also my blogs of 3 March, 23 June, 19 December, 2014, and 15 January, 2015.)

Monday 2 February 2015

Ferry disasters - al-Salam Boccaccio 98 nine years on

On this day............9 years ago, the al-Salam Boccaccio 98, a roll-on, roll-off ferry, set sail from Duba in Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea to Safaga in southern Egypt, carrying 96 crew and 1,312 passengers. It would never get there.

A couple of hours into the voyage, a fire broke out among the 220 vehicles on the car deck. Repeated attempts to put it out failed, and at about one o' clock on the morning of 3 February, 2006, the ship began to list alarmingly.

Within a few minutes she sank, without any of her bigger lifeboats getting launched, and people had to get away as best they could in rubber dinghies. More than 1,000 perished. For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

IHS Maritime and Trade Intelligence says that over the last ten years, 4,784 lives have been lost in accidents involving large ferries.  The worst year was 2011, when IHS says 1,642 people died. On September 10 of that year, the Spice Islander 1 sank off Zanzibar, with a death toll estimated at up to 1,500.