Saturday 31 October 2015

A mysterious Halloween air crash

ISIS has claimed responsibility for bringing down the Russian Airbus A321 over Sinai, though it is fair to say that at present, not many believe them, with the authorities blaming a technical fault. What is clear is that 224 passengers and crew have been killed.

Halloween saw another mysterious air crash in 1999, when an EgyptAir Boeing 767 from New York to Cairo crashed into the Atlantic about 60 miles off Nantucket Island, killing all 217 people on board.

America’s National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the aircraft had been deliberately crashed by the first officer. The cockpit voice recorder (pictured) revealed that the captain had left the cockpit to go to the toilet, and that the first officer then began constantly repeating: ‘I rely on God’, as the autopilot was disconnected, and the engines shut down, leaving the aircraft plummeting towards the sea.

The Egyptians, though, rejected this explanation, saying a mechanical fault was the ‘likely cause’.

*Here I am doorstepping Tony Benn, then the Secretary of State for Industry, as crisis envelopes the British motorcycle industry in 1974 -

Wednesday 28 October 2015

20 years ago today - the world's deadliest subway disaster

It was 20 years ago today…..the world’s deadliest subway fire killed at least 289 people on the Baku Metro in Azerbaijan, as fire broke out on a train between two stations during the Saturday evening rush hour on 28 October 1995.

As smoke appeared in one of the five carriages, the lights went out, and the train came to a standstill. Passengers tried to get out of the coaches, but a set of doors jammed, and some were poisoned by fumes from burning fittings.

The driver had reported the incident and asked for the power to be switched off, but a number of people were electrocuted as they grabbed cables in an effort to escape. Among the dead were 28 children.

A government inquiry concluded that the fire was caused by an electrical fault, and two metro officials were sent to gaol, but others believed the real cause might have been a terrorist bomb. Incidentally, the Baku Metro, like the one in Moscow, is something of an architectural showpiece (see picture).

*For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Accidental anti-malaria drug

A Nobel prize-winning drug that kills parasitic worms may also work against malaria. Trials of ivermectin in villages in Burkina Faso are estimated to have prevented nearly 100 cases of the disease.

In communities where people took the drug, 25% of children avoided catching malaria during the rainy season, compared with just 16% in the untreated villages. The drug appears to work by weakening or killing the mosquitoes that spread the illness.

The trial does not end until next week, and these are preliminary results, but one of the investigators said they were ‘pretty excited’. Deaths from malaria have been reduced dramatically over the last 15 years, but it still kills about 430,000 people a year, most of them in Africa.

Fighting parasitic worms is also crucial. They can cause illnesses such as river blindness and elephantiasis, and by some estimates, they affect a third of the world’s population.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Murder hq

Honduras has passed on the unenvied title of the world’s most murderous country to its neighbour El Salvador. In the first 9 months of this year, there have been 4,930 killings in a population of 6.5 million – giving El Salvador a murder rate 20 times that of the United States.

A large part of the country is controlled by gangs, who recruit children in primary schools and extort money from businesses. It is estimated that nearly 300,000 people were forced to flee from their homes last year.

The violence got worse when the government withdrew its support for a truce between the gangs in the run-up to last year’s presidential election.  During the ceasefire, killings had dropped by nearly two-thirds, but the gangs carried on with their extortion rackets, which made the government look weak.

Now police and soldiers are trying to try to wrest back control of neighbourhoods, so far with little success. The Roman Catholic Church has tried to resurrect the truce, but for the moment, the president is refusing to talk to the gangs.

Friday 9 October 2015

London theatre fires and riots

Boyd Hilton’s excellent volume on English history from 1783 to 1846 in the New Oxford History of England – A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? - mentions one of the many disasters to afflict London’s theatres.

The Covent Garden Theatre was burned down twice – in 1808 and 1856. The first fire in September 1808 destroyed not just the building, but also the costumes, the scenery and the scripts, but thanks partly to some chivvying from King George III, Londoners contributed generously enough to help the owners get the theatre rebuilt and reopened just a year later.

To recoup some of the considerable sums they had invested, the owners decided to put up the prices. On the first night of Macbeth, patrons rioted until the early hours of the morning over the new charges, and that was just the start of the so-called ‘old price riots’ which went on for 64 days.

In the end, the manager and part owner of the theatre, John Kemble, a distinguished actor, had to deliver a public apology, and announce that the increases were being withdrawn. (See also my blog of 21 December 2013.)

Monday 5 October 2015

Malaria - progress in the fight

Malaria is projected to kill more than 430,000 people this year. That's bad enough, but it represents a cut of around 60 per cent since 2000, the year the disease was targeted by the UN's Millennium Development Goals programme.

The WHO says 6 million lives have been saved. Its director general, Dr Margaret Chan, describes this as 'one of the great public health success stories of the past 15 years. It's a sign that our strategies are on target, and that we can beat this ancient killer.' 

Nearly 70 per cent of the reduction is put down to the distribution of a billion insecticide-treated bed nets. But there are some worrying signs. The mosquitoes that carry the disease are becoming more resistant to some insecticides, and the rate at which cases are being reduced is falling. 

Africa still accounts for about 80 per cent of all cases. (See also my posts of 11 June 2009, 23 May 2012, 23 Sept 2011, 29 April 2013.)