Tuesday, 28 April 2015

At Civil War's end, a steamboat disaster that history forgot

What remains of the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history lies buried beneath an Arkansas beanfield where the Mississippi River once ran.

A century-and-a-half later, residents of the nearest town and descendants of passengers aboard the steamboat Sultana are gathering to commemorate a disaster that was overshadowed by Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Along Highway 55 entering Marion, Arkansas, a small banner welcomes the descendants arriving for Monday's anniversary. Workers are feverishly restoring a mural depicting the steamboat as they seek to give the disaster its place in history.

The Sultana blew up on April 27, 1865, about seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, claiming as many as 1,800 lives, according to historical estimates. The Titanic claimed fewer — 1,517 — when it sank 45 years later.

But the momentous events of April 1865 — Lincoln's death and Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender among them — all but eclipsed the tragedy on the Mississippi.

That month, thousands of Union prisoners newly freed in the South were being sent back north on steamboats. The Sultana was carrying six times its capacity with almost 2,500 people, among them many emaciated, injured or sick Union veterans.

"The nation had just endured four long years of civil war, over 600,000 lives were lost and people were accustomed to reading about thousands of men dying in battles," said Jerry O. Potter, a Memphis lawyer who counts himself among a handful of Sultana experts.

At 2 a.m. on April 27, as the Sultana navigated a swollen Mississippi that was flooded to treetop height and about 4 miles wide, three of the steamer's boilers exploded, sending flames and passengers into the air.

Residents of the tiny towns that dotted the river lashed together logs to make rescue rafts. Marion Mayor Frank Fogelman said people on both sides of his great-grandfather's family were among those rescuers.

"My grandmother made reference to it in the family Bible," Fogelman said. "The way I understand it, they used the raft to remove people from the wreckage and put them up in the treetops and then came back for everyone once all the survivors were away from the wreckage and the fire."

Passengers who escaped the burning ship struggled in the dark, cold water. Hundreds died of hypothermia or drowned. Bodies were still being pulled from the riverbanks months later, while others were never recovered.

The wreckage is now buried about 30 feet beneath a field not far from Marion, inside the river's flood-control levees. The river has since run a new course and runs about a mile east of the spot.

It wasn't until last year that the state of Arkansas erected a bronze plaque at the edge of a parking to memorialize the tragedy. Those who know the Sultana's story are hoping Monday's anniversary events will help make the sinking more than just a footnote to the end of the Civil War.

When the memorial is over, the 12,000-person town plans to turn a temporary exhibit into a permanent Sultana museum. The exhibit includes documents, photos, a canoe-sized replica of the steamboat and a wall covered in white panels with the name of every soldier, civilian and crew member.

"We've had a few people see this list and find an ancestor," said Norman Vickers, a local historian. "We hope more people will come and look at it, and maybe find something."

Potter, who wrote "The Sultana Tragedy" in 1992, is still researching the stories of those involved.

He recalled one former soldier who failed to re-board the Sultana when it steamed from Memphis. The soldier paid a local man to ferry him out to the Sultana so he could continue on to Ohio. The ex-soldier died in the disaster, but his best friend survived to tell about that twist of fate.

Years later, sitting at a descendants' reunion, Potter was able to connect the two families.

"That has been the one of the most rewarding parts of this, being able to help descendants make that connection," he said.

"Because to me, the greatest tragedy of the Sultana is that history has forgotten these men."

Tuesday 28 April 2015


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Google, Facebook join Red Cross to find thousands missing after Nepal quake

German development worker Caroline Siebald and her boyfriend Charles Gertler, an American glaciologist, were on a rafting trip in Nepal when the earthquake struck and initially panicked about how to let their families know they were safe.

After about 30 attempts, Gertler, 25, managed to get a phone call through to his mother in Massachusetts in the United States, and she registered them as safe on Facebook's "Safety Check". Within minutes, their friends and families saw the news.

"I had messages from my best friends in kindergarten saying 'Oh my God, I'm so glad you're alive'", Siebald, 22, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From migrant Nepali domestic workers in India to IT professionals in Brazil, people across the globe have taken to social media sites such as Facebook and Google to look for missing relatives and pass on news of survival in Nepal.

In India, which has the highest population of Nepali migrants in the world, many have been frantically trying to phone home, horrified as they watch television pictures showing bodies being pulled out of the rumble of collapsed buildings.

"I don't know anything about my son who is in a village with my parents far from Kathmandu. I am calling on the phone all the time, but I can't get through. I can't eat, sleep or work," said Usha Tamang, a nanny of Nepali nationality working in Delhi.

Elsewhere in the world, others are searching for relatives and friends who were visiting the Himalayan nation during its peak tourism season.

An estimated 300,000 foreign tourists were in the country, several hundred of whom were on Mount Everest, when Saturday's 7.9 magnitude quake struck, killing more than 3,700 people.


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was one of the first agencies to launch an online platform to trace the thousands of people who are missing.

The family tracing service publishes lists of names and information on people who are safe and well, hospital patients, people who are looking for relatives, sought persons or those who are dead.

Individuals can access these lists directly on the webpage to look for the names of their family members or register themselves as safe or in danger.

Facebook has also launched its Safety Check tool https://www.facebook.com/safetycheck/nepalearthquake for Nepal, drawing praise from Facebook members.

"It's a simple way to let family and friends know you're okay. If you're in one of the areas affected by the earthquake, you'll get a notification asking if you're safe, and whether you want to check on any of your friends," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted.

"When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters."

An IT professional in Brazil was one of many who said that the initiative had helped her trace her family.

"My father and friends are in the area and one of the first contact points we had to get some news was Facebook. This media is not always about likes and fun," the woman wrote in response to Zuckerberg's post.

"When you or someone in your family is in danger, you'll try ANY kind of contact and I'm glad Facebook helped me today. Connection is what matters."

Another application, the Google Person Finder https://google.org/personfinder/2015-nepal-earthquake/, first launched after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, uses SMS to allow anyone to search or update information on missing people.

On Saturday Jacqueline Brown registered Angus Brown, 46, from London, as safe. "Angus has emailed, he is in Lumboche with Martin. Both are fine, warm and have food," she said. The service is currently tracking about 5,800 people.

Telecommunications firms and tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft and T-Mobile, joined the relief effort by either waving call and text fees, facilitating donations or making donations outright.

Apple has launched a partnership with the American Red Cross, asking iTunes users to donate money through its iTunes Store for the relief efforts. Apple says that 100 percent of the donations will be made to the American Red Cross in its ongoing efforts to help survivors. Twitter is also helping to raise funds through not-for-profit organizations, including UNICEF.

Google has launched its Person Finder to help people determine whether those who may have been in the area of the earthquake are safe. Person Finder users can say whether they're "looking for someone" or "have information about someone." The service is designed for victims or people who know victims to update their family and friends on their current status. For instance, the service can provide peace-of-mind to family members, telling them that a victim is safe and sound. Google has also reduced its international calls charge to Nepal via its phone service Google Voice to one cent per minute. The company previously charged 19 cents per minute to call Nepal.

Google engineer Dan Fredinburg, who worked in the company's Project X division, was among at least 17 climbers killed when an avalanche set off by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake rolled into the climbers' base camp on Mount Everest. His death was confirmed by Google, which indicated that three other Google employees were on the mountain with Fredinburg at the time of the avalanche. "He has passed away," Lawrence You, Google's director of privacy, wrote in a blog post. "The other three Googlers with him are safe, and we are working to get them home quickly."

Soon after the Nepal earthquake hit, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg activated his company's Safety Check feature, allowing those who may have been in the area to let friends and family know they're fine. "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe," Zuckerberg wrote on Saturday. "It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters. My thoughts are with everyone who's been caught up in this tragedy."

Telecommunications companies are also helping out. Time Warner, Verizon and AT&T have all offered their customers free calls to Nepal. Time Warner is additionally offering free calls to India and China through May 25; and Verizon and AT&T are offering free texting.

The technology companies' efforts could prove integral to helping people in Nepal in the wake of Saturday's 7.8-magnitude earthquake. The earthquake, the biggest to hit Nepal in 81 years, has so far left more than 3,700 people dead and is feared to have killed many more.

The catastrophe has mobilized humanitarian aid from around the world and several prominent organizations, including the American Red Cross, are on the scene to help those in need. The exact extent of the damage and ultimate impact on the Himalayan nation is still being evaluated, but the earthquake was strong enough to severely damage Katmandu and caused an avalanche on Mount Everest.

Nepal is seeking help in every way. Spokespeople for the country's government have said to reporters on the scene that the country lacks "the proper facilities" to properly address such a major natural disaster.

The technology industry's response is similar to how it responded following Japan's own disaster in 2011 following a major earthquake and tsunami. Nearly all of the major companies in the industry provided relief efforts to help victims.

Despite their best efforts, technology companies can only do so much to connect with people in Nepal. The country is one of the poorest in the world and just a third of its population of 30 million people is actually online. According to reports, the earthquake has taken down critical infrastructure, including Internet access, which could make efforts for victims to communicate even more difficult.

Tuesday 28 April 2015



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