Sunday, 16 August 2015

Search is on to identify ‘unknown’ sailors at Pearl Harbor

As the sun broke from behind the clouds over Oahu’s Koolau mountains one recent morning, a seven-member detail of military personnel transferred five coffins, disinterred from two graves marked “unknown,” at the Punchbowl, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific here.

Off to the west was Pearl Harbor, where the men in the coffins died nearly 75 years ago.

The detail draped each coffin with a U.S. flag, saluted and placed the coffins into trucks.

“We’re not ‘mission complete’ until we return them home,” Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a director of public affairs for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said of the remains of 388 sailors who died aboard the battleship Oklahoma during the Pearl Harbor attack.

Eventually, 61 coffins from 45 graves will be dug up, Morgan said, and taken to laboratories that over the next five years will use DNA and dental records to identify the remains, the names of which have long been engraved on a memorial near Pearl Harbor.

The process of searching for and identifying service members missing from World War II has been going on since the fighting ended 70 years ago, but the latest efforts have taken on a sense of urgency as the number of those who served and are still alive dwindles.

“There are unknowns around the world,” said James Horton, director of the national cemetery in Honolulu, where 2,760 unidentified service members, 1,061 from Pearl Harbor, are buried. “What makes identification very difficult is the severity of what happened, which may have made things messy, and how much more fighting there’s going on in those areas.”

“The reason they went for the Oklahoma unknowns is there is a known set of them, a fairly finite set,” he said.

Of the eight battleships attacked that Sunday in 1941, only the Oklahoma and the Arizona were damaged beyond repair. The Arizona rests below its memorial at Pearl Harbor. The Oklahoma, which capsized, was brought up two years later.

The bodies recovered from the Oklahoma were buried throughout Oahu and later transferred to the Punchbowl in 1949, after it was dedicated. Some of the remains ended up in separate coffins.

The push to identify the Oklahoma unknowns began as a quest by a Pearl Harbor survivor, Ray Emory, for better grave markers.

When Emory, 94, who was on the light cruiser Honolulu during the attack, visited the Punchbowl in 1990, a cemetery worker could not tell him where to find the sailors from the Oklahoma.

That began a quest for headstones that would distinguish Pearl Harbor unknowns from those who died in other wars or other battles. Emory then wondered if he could single out the name and grave for one Oklahoma victim.

His curiosity sent him on what would become a venture through stacks of burial records.

One file contained information about 27 service members before their reburial at the Punchbowl. Using that information, Emory located the graves of those men, and in 2003 the military agreed to exhume five of the bodies he had identified.

Encouraged, Emory reached out to family members of the remaining 22 unknowns, asking them to pressure state and national lawmakers. A letter to the Pentagon in 2014 from Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., urging the disinterment and identification of the Oklahoma unknowns went nowhere.

But a similar letter sent in February paid off. And in April, the deputy secretary of defense, Robert Work, announced plans to disinter and identify the unknown remains from the Oklahoma. The work began in June.

There are limitations. A grave with commingled remains may be dug up, the announcement said, only if it is likely that evidence can determine identities for 60 percent of the remains. A grave with a single unknown may be disinterred only if there is a 50 percent likelihood that the remains can be identified.

Remains that cannot be identified will receive a full military honors burial, Morgan said. Near the time of that burial, Morgan said, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency will determine what to do with remains without surviving or identifiable relatives.

Sunday 16 August 2015

continue reading

Italy finds dozens of migrants dead in hold during ship rescue

At least 40 migrants died Saturday in the hold of an overcrowded smuggling boat in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya, apparently killed by fuel fumes, and some 320 others on the same boat were saved by the Italian navy, the rescue ship's commander said.

Migrants by the tens of thousands are braving the perilous journey across the Mediterranean this year, hoping to reach Europe and be granted asylum. They are fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

"The dead were found in the hold," Cmdr. Massimo Tosi, speaking from the navy ship Cigala Fulgosi while the rescue was still ongoing. Asked by RaiNews24 how the migrants died, Tosi said "it appears to be from inhaling exhaust fumes."

"They are still counting the victims," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters.

Tosi said the survivors included 45 women and three children.

When rescuers stepped aboard, the bodies of migrants were "lying in water, fuel, human excrement" in the hold, Tosi said, adding that among the survivors, "women were crying for their husbands (and) their children who died in the crossing."

Prior to Saturday's disaster, at least 2,100 migrants died at sea this year trying to make the crossing from the shores of Libya, where human traffickers are based, to Italy. Migration organizations say the Libya-to-Italy crossing is by far the deadliest. The exact toll of dead will never be known, as some boats are believed by authorities to have gone down at sea without rescuers being aware of them.

The number of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea is on track to hit a record this year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration.

Greece has reported 134,988 arrivals from Turkey this year, the group said, while Italy recorded more than 100,000 migrants rescued at sea by mid-August. Along with other migrants landing in Spain and Malta, that makes over 243,000 people crossing so far this year - compared to 219,000 for all of 2014.

Sunday 16 August 2015

continue reading

China blasts death toll rises to 112

The death toll from two massive explosions in the Chinese port of Tianjin has risen to 112, an official says.

More than 700 people have also been hospitalised as a result of Wednesday's blasts - which triggered a huge fireball - as well as a fire that emergency workers have struggled to put out since then and fresh explosions on Saturday.

"By 9am on August 16, the total number of deaths was 112," Gong Jiansheng, the deputy chief of the city's propaganda department, said at a news conference.

"We have already identified 24 bodies, and there are 88 to be identified."

At least 21 firefighters are among the dead, according to state media.

Authorities on Saturday moved to relocate anyone within three kilometres of the blast site in the northern city over fears of toxic contamination, but have insisted that the disaster did not release dangerous levels of chemicals into the environment.

Officials have struggled to identify the substances present at the scene, sparking fears and scepticism among residents of Tianjin, which has a population of 15 million.

Sunday 16 august 2015

continue reading